Code/Switch – Explosion!


Hi, my name is James and welcome to Code/Switch. Today I want to continue talking about science in space. Last Code/Switch we learned that ramming things with your super-cool space ship just results in heart-(andeverythingelse)-break. This week I want to console your broken heart by teaching you that its still possible to die in an explosion in space before the deceleration of a collision turns your brain into tartar.

What is an Explosion?

According to Wikipedia an explosion is “a rapid increase in volume and release of energy in an extreme manner”. Basically an explosion is the wave of pressure and heat that comes from a chemical reaction. The explosions we think of like bombs undergo detonation which is a supersonic exothermic front (basically pressure wave) through a medium (usually air) until that pressure wave hits a wall and knocks it out of the way. Subsonic combustion like burning logs is called Deflagration. Deflagration can still create damage by heat transfer (i.e. burning you), but lacks the pressure wave explosions are known and feared for.

The initial blast is a detonation, the following burning would be deflagration. Both are unpleasant.


Why Do People Think You Can’t Have Explosions in Space?

It’s been a continuing piece of weird cultural knowledge that space is cold, silent, and that burning is impossible because there’s no atmosphere. That knowledge is correct in that you couldn’t have a fireplace burn in space because there’s no oxygen, but rocket fuels like hydrogen peroxide “burn” in space just fine to provide rockets thrust. The reason wood wouldn’t burn is the reaction requires oxygen to start and continue as shown in this formula.

So What Can Cause Explosions in Space?

Tons of stuff, you have plenty of opportunities to die! Chemical explosions where the fuel has a built in oxidizer (like gunpowder), magic, nuclear detonation, over-compression of a sealed environment and the list goes on! I do want to highlight that last one, compression.

Thermobaric Catastrophe

Thermobaric weapons are horrifying, they use oxygen from the surrounding air to generate a high-temperature explosion with a powerful blast wave. When used in confined areas like bunkers, fortifications, or I don’t know, the inside of a spaceship, these weapons set the literal air on fire as the pressure turns you inside out. These weapons wouldn’t be effective in the same way a bullet would, you’d have to have them get inside the vessel in a relatively small wound and then explode, but the damage would be massive in your ship. Also it’d explode, yay! If you’re Luke, you’re in luck, you’d have to be in a pretty large ship for this type of weapon to work, as it needs massive amounts of oxygen, but if you’re Darth in his Star Destroyer get ready to see Padme again.

You can see the high-pressure wave corona around the fire as that white haze. Thats the force that knocks you out of your Nikes.


In conclusion, all you space jockeys can have your sick explosions! Sure a laser hitting metal won’t make a big bang like it would on earth, but your rockets would still explode and your chances of dying in a fiery detonation still live on! Next Code/Switch I want to finish this space-science triumvirate by talking about the propagation of sound in space. If you have any questions feel free to drop a line in the comments below or find me and the other KD bloggers on our Discord.

James Ballod

James blossomed into geekdom like a piranha plant in the crack of a sidewalk. Watered by the muscle-brained lore of Warhammer 40,000 and nurtured in the rough bosom of World of Warcraft, tabletop RPGs came late in life to James. The rich lore and real-world influences in games like Pathfinder inspire James to explore them from every angle. When not being an annoying anime-fanboy he can be found discussing the history of various cuisines and over-analyzing real world influences in works of fiction.