The sled ride models the impact of weapons against surfaces.
The results give engineers an idea how deep a weapon might penetrate before exploding, especially those targeting underground bunkers.
A newly unearthed video from the 1950s shows engineers at one of America’s foremost national laboratories using a rocket sled to test nuclear weapons designs.
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Engineers built the rocket sled at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico to simulate high-speed impacts, allowing weapons designers to observe their weapons under conditions that simulated an accident or airborne drop. Sandia still uses the sled today to show how the latest nuclear bomb, the B61-12, would penetrate a hardened target.
In this video from the YouTube channel Atom Central, engineers in white jumpsuits secure what look like full-scale models of bombs to rocket sleds. The unidentified bombs appear to be nuclear, but they don’t visually match any known nukes:
Perhaps the bombs, which may not have entered production, were built to test fuzes or the penetration capability of new, untried nose assemblies. In the video, you can also see an MGM-18 Lacrosse, a short-range ballistic missile the U.S. Army operated in the 1950s.
Next, a bright orange test subject is trapped to the rocket sled and hurtled downrange, where it crashes into a solid block of concrete.
During the Cold War, the U.S. quickly came to realize many targets in a nuclear war, especially enemy headquarters, would be located in underground shelters. Nuclear war planners anticipated the bunkers, which were dug into solid rock or embedded in concrete, with massive thermonuclear bombs of at least a megaton (1,000 kilotons) of TNT.
As nukes became more accurate, engineers realized they could use smaller bombs to achieve the same effect. (Too many large bombs dropped on an important target could throw up large amounts of debris and smoke, affecting the delivery of subsequent weapons.) A weapon capable of burrowing into rock or concrete before detonating could have an even smaller warhead. Engineers could use test platforms like the Sandia Labs rocket sled to test how these burrowing weapons performed after being dropped from a bomber.
In addition to testing penetration, the sleds could also simulate how nuclear weapons react to being slammed into the ground during a plane crash. Nuclear weapons don’t explode when they’re not supposed to, particularly in catastrophic accidents involving the delivery system. During the Cold War, a number of U.S. nuclear weapons were damaged or destroyed in crashes, including the famous Kirtland Air Force Base incident in 1957 and the 1961 Goldsboro, North Carolina incident.
Sandia’s rocket sled is still in use today. In 2016, Sandia reported it was using the sled to simulate the B61-12, America’s newest tactical nuclear bomb, in a “high-speed accident.” The close copy of the B61-12 was equipped with almost every real-world component of the bomb except radioactive enriched uranium or plutonium.
The B61-12 accelerated along the sled’s 10,000-foot track and slammed into concrete. The trip simulated a crash at 260 miles per hour to test the weapon’s safety mechanisms.
The 10,000-foot sled can accommodate weights of up to 100,000 pounds moving at 100 feet per second. The sled supports smaller objects at speeds of up to 6,000 feet per second.
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