Using an atomic water cannon to change the earth’s orbit

Back in the early 1970s, engineer William Peterson proposed builing a gigantic, atomic-powered water cannon in the Mojave Desert and blasting ocean water out of it. He claimed this would not only create rain to water the desert, but would also change earth's orbit, in a beneficial way. Eventually, he said, we could even use the cannon to move the earth to a new solar system!

I've got two questions: 1) Would salt water shot up into the atmosphere come back down as fresh water? and 2) How big would you have to make something like this to actually move the earth?

Logan Herald-Journal - Nov 23, 1971

Text below from a Nov 1971 UPI article:


By Robert E. Sweet

SEATTLE (UPI) — William E. Peterson wants to erect what amounts to a giant atomic water pistol in the Mojave Desert, shoot it off and change the orbit of the earth.

Or, as Peterson himself once put it in an edition of a local Rotary Club bulletin which he edits: "Some weirdo hereabouts is campaigning for a project to fly the earth."

Peterson is a 40-year-old structural engineer who works mainly on dams and bridges. He has a sense of humor and can understand why some people might think he's a crackpot. But he is dead serious about his "earth sailing" project," which he has tried to sell to everyone from President Nixon to the Sierra Club to private foundations.


Peterson's plan is to build a nuclear cannon, a mile in diameter at the base, tapering off to a narrow nozzle on top. With an atomic blast that he estimates would be equal to about one million tons of TNT he would force a piston mechanism to shoot sea water out the top of the cannon at terrific speed.

He figures about 10 per cent of the water vapor would escape earth's gravity and the spray would nudge the planet's orbit in the same way jets propel a spacecraft.

The water that remained in the atmosphere, Peterson said in an interview, would act like a "giant sprinkler system" and create rain to water the Mojave Desert.


A new orbit would improve the world's climate, ease pollution problems and "put some life into Death Valley," he said.

"Some reputable scientists say we're in for another ice age in the year 2000," Peterson said, in an interview, noting that others predict all sorts of ecological disasters on the horizon.

"So some day — and maybe not too far in the future — we're going to have to know how to control the orbit to maintain at least the quality of life we know now.

"If we can't do it this way sailing "Our Great Ship Earth," how are we going to do it?"

Peterson said other potential benefits of his proposal include: — Turning the globe into a giant spacecraft and flying it to another sun when our sun burns out, which scientists estimate will be in about 5 billion years.

— Applying the same technology to other planets to bring them closer to the sun for more living space for earthlings.

— Replacing dams with sea water cannons for the sake of electrical power.

— Desalinating sea water.


— Easing the excesses of nationalism by fostering a sense of international cooperation in working on the project.

Peterson said the cannon would not necessarily have to be used to alter the earth's orbit. A smaller blast of water would be just a rainmaker and the water that did not leave the structure could drive power pistons to supply electric energy. Or, a nozzle at the top could be directed in such a way as to squelch forest fires.

His plan has been a personal project with Peterson for 13 years, but only in the last few years has he begun promoting it. Among those to whom he has divulged his plan are: President Nixon, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Sierra Club, Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Wash., Washington Gov. Dan Evans, and a few private foundations.


NASA rejected the plan because its political and ecological implications were beyond the scope of the agency. H. Dale Grubb, NASA's assistant administator for legislative affairs, wrote Peterson:

"It would be presumptuous and inappropriate for one nation or an agency of one nation to speculate on the accomplishment of such a project."

Brock Evans, a spokesman for the conservation-dedicated Sierra Club, replied: "Death Valley, as you know, is a national monument at the present time. Our viewpoint is that we don't always need to make the desert bloom."

Donald F. Moore, an assistant administrator of the U.S. Department of Commerce, Environmental and Science Services Administration, wrote Peterson:

"The President has asked me to review the proposal ... and give you my comments.

"Your idea of changing the orbit of the earth as a means of controlling climate and distribution of rainfall is most intriguing and certainly represents highly creative thinking on your part.


"Experience has shown, however, that the atmosphere is a very elastic medium, and thus instead of blowing out into space like the exhaust from a rocket, it absorbs the energy and momentum from a nuclear blast and eventually returns it to the earth so that no actual motion of the earth takes place."

Peterson answered these doubts saying: "actually it would be impossible to draw this conclusion since no one has thought of the type of device I have proposed."

He believes his proposal "warrants a feasibility study," even if admittedly it is a "real futuristic idea."

"I don't feel the (federal officials) gave it a fair shake. They just discounted the ideas and did not by any means prove they wouldn't work."

Peterson said he is gaining support locally and would attempt to win voter approval by going from state to state, campaigning.

And, he added, at least his children are convinced the plan would work — they call him "Earth Pilot No. 1."
     Posted By: Alex - Wed Nov 09, 2022
     Category: Really Bad Ideas | Spaceflight, Astronautics, and Astronomy | Environmentalism and Ecology | 1970s

Are you sure that this was a UPI article? It reads like it came straight out of the Weekly World News.
Posted by KDP on 11/09/22 at 09:35 AM
Good questions, Alex. The first one must be true, since this would desalinate the sea water (according to Peterson, anyway). So I next wonder 1a) Where does the salt go? And if it goes "away," then 1b) Won't we miss it?

He needs to better work out the energy balance in the concept of replacing dams with sea water cannons for the sake of electrical power – or stick to structures.

Posted by Virtual in Carnate on 11/09/22 at 11:14 AM
I suspect his inspiration was the 1957 Pascal B test shooting a manhole cover into space. He wanted to fill the shaft above it with water to make it a cannon.

If it worked, it wouldn't be shooting saltwater into the air -- heat and pressure would make it a spray of ionic hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, and chlorine. Some would reform to make water and salt, but hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide (lye) would also be in abundance. I don't know about anyone else, but I don't want to get caught in that rain!

Actually, I don't see it working at all. Water can't be compressed. If you have a tube filled with water and apply 1,000 psi to a plunger at the bottom, before the water comes out, it'll be exerting 1,000 pounds of pressure to every square inch of the inside of the tube. I won't take a guess what pressure an enclosed nuclear explosion creates, but I'm fairly sure no manmade material is going to withstand a significant percentage of it.
Posted by Phideaux on 11/09/22 at 08:08 PM
As for question 2, the real answer is that you simply can't make it big enough to make a real difference. The combined mass of all water on Earth is less than a quarter of a thousandth of the mass of the Earth itself. It would be like trying to move yourself by throwing away just over a thimbleful of blood.
Posted by Richard Bos on 11/12/22 at 06:46 AM
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