Rods from God: Kinetic and Tungsten

The Rods from God, a nickname for a theoretical space weapon system, has been a topic of fascination, and serious discussion, since its scifi origin.

Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle thought up the concept of the kinetic orbital strike as a Boeing operations researcher in the 1950s.

The idea involves hurling precision guided tungsten rods, about the size of telephone poles from space.

Within minutes, the rods’ impact would cause devastation to the target area similar to a nuclear blast, but without the radioactive fallout.

Science Fiction Writing

If the idea sounds like scifi, it’s worth noting Pournelle authored science fiction stories under a pen name while working as a defense systems analyst.

He also served as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
He helped architect pieces of the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative, known as the Star Wars program, as a founder of the Citizens’ Advisory Council on National Space Policy.

Project Thor

Pournelle called the kinetic space weapon Project Thor.

In the 1970s and 80s, Pournelle refined the concept in his scifi collaborations with Larry Niven, including the 1985 book Footfall.

As the concept turned into a scifi trope in the 80s and 90s, serious research was underway into launching rods from space to achieve high-velocity impacts, akin to meteor strikes.

US Air Force Research

In the early 2000s, the US Air Force explored kinetic bombardment’s feasibility in a number of studies, including the Transformation Flight Plan.

The 2003 report estimates a 20 by 1 foot tungsten cylinder impacting at Mach 10 would deliver the kinetic energy equivalent to 11 and a half tons of TNT.
In the past decades, the topic has arisen sporadically.

Kinetic Energy Projectiles (KEP)

In 2013, US Air Force and civilian researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory successfully test-fired a tungsten-rich kinetic energy projectile moving at 3,500 feet per second, according to Task & Purpose.

The report notes a 2014 DARPA rendering depicting a supersonic conventional weapon emerging from a rocket nose.

The kinetic energy projectile is “not quite Jerry Pournelle’s Rods from God, but just as terrifying,” Jared Keller wrote in the 2017 piece.

2023 Chinese Study

A 2023 Chinese research paper questions whether a kinetic bombardment would be as devastating as believed, according to the South China Morning Post.

It’s reasonable to assume that top secret research into deploying, and preparing for, Rods from God is underway globally.

The Future

The main blockers of Rods from God are the cost and logistics compared to conventional weapons that would be as impactful.

The commercialization of space, however, opens up technological possibilities previously considered far fetched.

It’s unlikely Rods from God could be sent into orbit without attracting attention from global space surveillance networks.