Incoming ICBM, what do you see?

Just finished reading this thread:

And I recalled a rather morbid question I’ve wondered about.

The scenario: The enemy has launched a nuclear attack on your homeland using ICBM’s and you’ve become aware of that fact. On the premise that you’d rather not survive the aftermath anyway (not something I agree with) you decide to stand outside and watch the incoming warhead.

My question is, what would you actually see in that scenario? Assume there’s no cloud cover. Would the reentry vehicle be large enough to see with the naked eye? Would it be leaving a trail across the sky having been heated coming down through the atmosphere? How fast would it appear to be moving? How long would you have from first noticing it until detonation? (assuming its coming in your general direction and is going to land nearby with a groundburst?)

I’m guessing that at night the heat-trail would be easily visible, how about during the daytime?

I’ve done a youtube search for footage of reentry vehicles but haven’t found anything but extremely blurred and unclear footage, guess its probably still classified.

The projectiles come in considerably faster than bullets. During WWII, the general consensus among Londoners seems to have been that the only warning they got of a V-2 strike was the terminal explosion, unlike the V-1 “buzz-bombs.” Since modern ICBMs are much more sophisticated than the V-2, and typically only a smaller reentry vehicle carrying the warhead reaches the target (as opposed to the whole body of the rocket as was the case with the V-2), I’d be shocked if unaided human senses could perceive anything at all before the big boom.

I saw a photo of some MIRVs heading toward an island target some years ago. I really wish I could find it again. The surprising thing was how shallow the angle was - they were basically coming in just over the horizon, and they were leaving a quite visible smoke trail.

It is a long-exposure photograph, so those are not actually smoke trails. Eery nonetheless.

It’s definately going to be moving much faster than sound. You have to know beforehand which direction to look.

I don’t think it will look very big, especially if it’s just one MIRV package. (The photo on wikipedia for “MIRV” shows an object approximately five feet in length.)

Here’s a long exposure photo on that same article of MIRV warheads angling in to target:

I can’t tell what exactly made the lines in that photo: Rocket heat trail, re-entry heat trail, or something else. Looks like night time.

I think by the time you saw it, and recognised it as what you were looking for, you’ll have time to go “Awww crap”, and not much more.

Edit: Dupe wikipedia photo cite. Curse my hunt and peck typing style.

This one? One of the most haunting pictures I’ve ever seen.

Ninja’d not once, but twice. Oh well.

You may find the following youtube footage interesting. Supposedly, it’s very very grainy footage of dummy Minuteman III RVs coming in and impacting somewhere at the Kwajalein Test Range.

Another thread at military shows pictures from other reentry tests. I’ve witnessed the Space Shuttle re-entering and while it is a good deal larger than any ICBM RV, it looked like for all the world like a glowing jet airplane contrail. (The re-entry was at night, over Austin Texas). The motion was perceptible and quick, not bolt of lightning quick, but maybe 5-10 degrees of sky per second? Of course, it wasn’t dropping right on top of our heads…

A longer (8 minute or so video) of a Minuteman III sortie with a dummy RV may be found here. The RV impacts occur at about 5:50 or so on the video. The soundtrack is as delightfully cheesy as you’d expect from DoD productions.

I think it’d look like the last 5 minutes of Miracle Mile, on top of the skyscraper, but with a much brighter glow to the trails, and much faster. The impacts in the liveleak video are “blink and you missed them” fast.

I couldn’t find it on Google Image search.
It was a daytime photo, taken from maybe 10 miles away, and it showed a group of MIRVs just about to impact an island. They were coming in at a very shallow angle, and leaving a very visible trail.

Even though I was expecting it that still made me flinch!

Makes me recall the end scene in a book I read a long time ago, Arclight by Eric L. Harry

At the climax a strategic nuclear attack has been launched at American cities but the warheads are disarmed before impact (can’t recall how) the President and his wife watch one come in to Washington not knowing if the warhead is armed or not…wonder how big a hole even an inert warhead would cause hitting at that speed?

Thanks for the answers everyone!

I’m fairly sure that none of these pictures actually is the one you’re looking for, but they’re too good to pass up on.

1 2 3 4 5 6

ICBMs are the ultimate nightmare fuel. I hope we survive this.

So what’s the velocity of a typical incoming MIRV?

During The First Gulf War we could see the incoming Scuds, and, since I was spitting distance from a battery, the outgoing Patriots.

The third video link in post #8 was made by the DoD. The narrator quotes a figure of some 16,000 km/hr. (If I heard it correctly… :frowning: )

16000 kph = 9940 mph = 14578 ft/sec.

Wikipedia says that the Barrett M98B sniper rifle ( .338 Lapua Magnum) has a muzzle velocity of 3100 ft/sec, and a 120mm gun on the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank may have a muzzle velocity of 5700 ft/sec (depending on the ammo used).

Wiki lists the max speed of the F-18 Hornet (C/D) as 1190 mph.

“Faster than a speeding bullet” is literally true.

Beyond the atmosphere, to go halfway around the world, a MIRV might have close to orbital speed (around 18,000mph). nce it starts to hit the atmosphere, it slows dramatically. Terminal velocity goes down as the air gets thicker.

The photo of fragments of the shuttle re-entry breakup would be a good example of what you’d see overhead. Note the renetry may be sharper than the shuttle angle, as the shuttle did actually glide for a while once the atmosphere got thick enough… but yeah, an ICBM would probably be barely visible over the horizon as it came in.

the Londoners I read once called the V2 the “flying gas main”, as it gave no warning other than the impact explosion. This after several explosions in a row were attributed to just “exploding gas mains”

I found the cheesiness made the video downright creepy and I don’t use that word very often.

I recall reading that part of the problem was the V2 came in vertically or almost vertically and most people don’t really look up?

I’m kicking myself because this is yet another thread that could have used the byline Need answer fast!!! to the title… :smiley:

Like this?

I don’t think that’s the one, but it’s been a long time. I just remember being really struck by how shallow the angle of the trails was - about 1/3 of the angle in that photo.