Russia may test a nuclear-powered cruise missile: Satellite images

Satellite images provided by Planet Labs show strange activity at Russian military aviation airfields on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. This may indicate preparations for the launch of a nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missile.

The aircraft that should be responsible for the launch of the Burevestnik missile. Source: The New York Times

Activity at polar airfields

The New York Times reports that Russia may soon test or has already tested the Burevestnik cruise missile, which has a nuclear engine. At the same time, journalists refer to the conclusions of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Norwegian environmental organization Bellona. 

The source of the conclusions was a series of satellite images obtained by Planet Labs. The first of them dates from the morning of September 20. It depicts a Russian strategic aviation base located beyond the Arctic Circle. They show that the weather protection is raised above the place where one of the bombers is located.

Also a large truck with a trailer is located nearby, the size of which just corresponds to the size of the Burevestnik. In addition, there are several other vehicles around. The pictures taken on the same day in the afternoon showed that the trailer had disappeared somewhere. However, it reappeared in the same place in a photo taken on September 28.

Possible launch location. Source: The New York Times

What is the Burevestnik missile

The Burevestnik is a cruise missile, that is, it is designed for high-speed aerodynamic flight over a distance of several thousand kilometers with a warhead on board. At the launch, it has a length of 12 m. It is carried out using a solid-fuel booster, which is then disconnected.

At this point, a nuclear air-jet engine comes into play. It is a turbine that is rotated and heated to high temperatures by a compact nuclear reactor. The air getting inside accelerates and heats up. Due to this, there is a thrust. The absence of consumable fuel on board means that the missile can fly much further than analogues operating according to the usual scheme.

Russia has repeatedly boasted that the Burevestnik will be able to fly 22 thousand kilometers, but so far this missile has not been able to overcome even 30. Several tests ended unsuccessfully, and in one of them, several people responsible for the launch even died. All this is accompanied by unprecedented secrecy, because of which it is impossible to say anything specific about the missile.

The truck is at the airbase. Source: The New York Times

Have the Russians tested the missile

Regardless of whether the Russians will be able to reach the declared range that allows them to attack the United States or not, the West is very concerned about the development of the Burevestnik, which they designate as SSC-X-9 Skyfall. The missile can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads. But this is not what worries specialists the most.

The missile can be used as a dirty atomic bomb. And in the event of a malfunction in flight, cause significant radioactive contamination of the territory. Therefore, its tests are closely monitored, but they cannot even say for sure whether it has been tested again after the last known accident. 

On August 31, Russia declared the airspace over the Barents Sea near the likely launch site a closed zone. The warning is valid until October 6. At any time during this period, the rocket can be tested, or it has already been tested. Two specialized observation aircraft of Rosatom were at the airbase at least until September 26. It is also reported that the flights were made by American intelligence officers.

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