How Nuke-Sniffing Air Force Planes Are Hunting For North Korea's H-Bomb

How Nuke-Sniffing Air Force Planes Are Hunting for North Korea's H-Bomb

Late last night, North Korea said it successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, triggering a mini, human-made earthquake near the test site and causing the UN Security Council to call an emergency meeting. Hydrogen bombs are even more destructive than nuclear bombs, so it's very scary -- but experts think North Korea's bluffing. How can we make sure? Nuclear debris-sniffing aeroplanes, duh. The aircraft pictured above is a WC-135W Constant Phoenix -- also known as a "sniffer plane". Its task? Fly across the Pacific to the Korean Peninsula and search for nuclear particulate in the air. Doing so could confirm (or debunk) North Korea's hefty, terrifying claims once and for all.

Never heard of sniffer planes? Their history traces back to the first and only country to use nuclear bombs as weapons, just a couple years after the attacks on Japan: post-World War II America.

After the war in 1947, President Dwight Eisenhower tasked the Air Force (then known as the "Army Air Forces") to track any atomic explosions across the globe, to keep tabs on which countries are pursuing the deadly technology.

They started using aircraft called sniffer planes, and just two years later, in September 1949, one on patrol between Alaska and Japan picked up nuclear debris left behind after Russia's first atomic bomb test. Even scarier? At the time, it wasn't expected that Russia could achieve a nuclear weapon until at least the mid '50s. You can see how sniffer planes became important, fast.

And so began the US Air Force's "atmospheric collection program". The planes, which are built to act as a big hazmat suit to protect crew, fly through areas of suspected nuclear activity; they have external devices that catch particulates on filter paper that are later analysed.

In support of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, sniffer planes have continued to routinely to make rounds the world over, from the North and South Poles to East Asia. Sniffer planes were also handy in tracking harmful particulates in the air around Chernobyl following the nuclear fallout in that region in 1986. They were also sent to Japan after 2011's Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which led to the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Today, however, the Washington Post reports that the Pentagon confirmed yesterday that a sniffer plane has been dispatched to North Korea -- the same country that touts its nukes in front of foreign press in a national parade, and who technology experts doubt is up to snuff enough to develop a hydrogen bomb. The air samples brought back by the Constant Phoenix will help us determine if this week's explosion was actually what North Korea state reports say it was.

[Washington Post]

Image: US Air Force photo/Josh Plueger

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    Hydrogen bombs *are* nuclear bombs.

      While you are correct hydrogen bombs are vastly more powerful than a thermonuclear bomb, a H bomb starts with a fission reaction it then uses fusion and is a different class of weapon

        A hydrogen Bomb is a thermonuclear bomb.

    If NK actually has the H-bomb then things could get very serious very quickly should they launch an attack against anyone. Their population doesn't know about the consequences of initiating a nuclear exchange but they would certainly find out very quickly if that actually happens.

    Using any such bomb would be committing the entirety of North Korea and a decent chunk of South Korea to either a quick death from the blasts or a slow death from the fallout. And that's without either the USA or Russia seeing the missiles as an attack against them from the other - if that happens, the entire world is doomed.

    Maybe that's Kim's endgame - destroy the world so that he may rule it. Sure, it'll be uninhabitable for a few hundred years due to the nuclear winter, but the world is still the world.

    Last edited 07/01/16 12:41 pm

      Maybe Kim has seen what the "free world" has done to Afghanistan, Iraq... and wants to be able to protect his people. After all, only one nation has dropped atomic weapons on a civilian population.

      pretty sure that North Korea not have the ability to deliver weapons in a way that would make them look like they came from the US or Russia (hell, I don't think that there is any technology that could make a North Korea based launch seem as if it came from Russia or the US, as they are called ballistic missiles for a reason.

        Only the coast and descent are ballistic (a true ballistic missile is unguided fire and forget), the ascent is guided. With many "ballistic" weapons even the last 2 stages are capable of being actively guided, masking the origin.

        I have no idea of the real capability of any nation.

        Syria is only a training mission for all the world powers.

        Last edited 07/01/16 5:07 pm

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