First Man-made Object in Space – A Manhole Cover?

By Anupum Pant

Edit: The first man-made object to cross the boundary of space (100 km above the sea level, or the karman line) a Nazi German V2 rocket on October 3, 1942. – As mentioned by Scott and Adolf in the comments.


Odd, I know. Teachers would say Sputnik was the first ever man-made object to orbit earth, but there is a slight possibility that Sputnik might not have been it – it could have been a humble manhole cover (not so humble, read on).

Back in the year 1956 (or summer of 1957, but definitely before the launch of Sputnik which happened on 4th October 1957), scientists at Los Alamos were learning to contain a nuclear explosion. To find out, they decided to do a much much larger version of the fire-cracker-in-a-can trick…
I’m not sure if they were doing it out of a desire to loft objects in space using a novel nuclear bomb propulsion, or it was something else, it sure was madness.

The mad experiment

In a 500 feet long and 4 feet wide vertical cylindrical tunnel, they put a nuclear bomb. The top of this tunnel was sealed using a 4 inch thick man hole cover (on steroids). The lid weighed about 2 tons! They were sure that even the 2 ton lid would blow off like feather due to the nuclear explosion. However, they weren’t sure on exactly how fast it’d travel up. To measure the speed, high-speed cameras were placed near the opening.

The bomb was detonated. Some say that the high speed cameras were only able to capture the image of the lid in a single frame. Which by the way could also contribute to an enormous error margin in the speed calculation. Nevertheless, the speed was of the lid at which it flew up in the air was calculated to be 41 miles per second – approximately 6 times the escape velocity! Never before had any man made objects moved at that speed inside the earth’s atmosphere. The lid went. It was never seen again. No one knows where it is now.

It’s highly likely that the lid was burned up and never reached Space. Or, may be it did reach some place and then dropped back. Again, must have got burnt during re-entry. Nothing can be said for sure.

Another thing that could have happened is that the lid went on and started orbiting the earth – highly unlikely, still. It’s probably still floating up there. And if things weren’t worse already, think of this – the first man-made object ever to orbit the earth was a manhole cover? Or, the fastest man-made object ever to travel inside the earth’s atmosphere was a manhole lid? Damn!

[Source 1] [Source 2]

A Natural Explosion That Knocked 80 Million Trees

By Anupum Pant

In the year 1908 (June 30), a remote part of Siberia experienced something really mysterious and really huge. It was an explosion that took place at about 5-10 km altitude in the air which was estimated to be as powerful as 1000 (or 185 according to NASA) Hiroshima bombs!

No one could ever figure out what really caused it. However, scientists were pretty sure that it was either a huge meteorite of about 100 feet (some say 1000 m) in diameter which crashed into the earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated, or it just bounced off the earth’s atmosphere like a huge skipping stone. Besides the scientific theories, there are a number of other “UFO and alien” stories that have been associated with this event. This was called the Tunguska event.

The sheer size: The explosion was utterly gigantic. So big, that it is still considered to be the most powerful natural explosion in the known history. The shock-waves from the explosion knocked people off their feet, and these people were 40 miles away from where the explosion happened. It wasn’t just people, 80 million trees over an area of 2,150 square kilometres were knocked down in a radial pattern (with trunks pointing away from the epicentre). 80 million! Wow!

It caused a mini earthquake and a NatGeo article says that the lake Checko could have been created due to this impact.

Eyewitness’ account:

Suddenly in the north sky… the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire… At that moment there was a bang in the sky and a mighty crash… The crash was followed by a noise like stones falling from the sky, or of guns firing. The earth trembled.
[NASA website]

Had this taken place above a metro city, the city would have been completely levelled by the event. But that is highly unlikely because cities take up a very small fraction of area on the earth’s surface. Moreover, very rarely do such events happen.

What is very likely is that such an event could happen over the part which covers 70% of the earth’s surface – the ocean. Such an event could create a huge Tsunami causing a lot of destruction on land.

Harmless Flour is an Incredibly Explosive Substance

By Anupum Pant


The next time you are biting off from a bread, pizza, pancake or a doughnut, you should probably take a minute and pay a silent acknowledgement to the people who work in flour mills to bring flour to your homes. Yes, because flour, the seemingly harmless cooking ingredient can be an incredibly dangerous substance – It explodes.

Wait a minute. It isn’t a minor explosion I’m talking about. I’m talking about really big explosions. Read on to know more.

Burning Flour

Flour is almost completely starch (or carbohydrate). Since Carbohydrate is nothing but a large molecule which is essentially a couple of sugar molecules linked to each other, it burns like sugar. And everybody who has tried burning marshmallows on a candle knows how easily sugar catches fire. Agreed, carbohydrate isn’t as sweet, but it is just like its cousin sugar when it comes to flammability.

So, that is how flour can catch fire. But what is it that makes it bring down full-sized buildings?

Flour in air

Flour in your kitchen’s flour container can be a very boring thing. The fun starts when the tiny flour particles are suspended in air.

Flour particles suspended in air, or for that matter, almost anything suspended in air that can catch fire, is a dangerous thing. For example, look at one of the most hazardous situation you can have in a coal mine – There is coal dust around and accidentally there is a small sparkle around it. The whole place explodes like a bomb. This has resulted in some of the worst ever mining accidents in the history.

Such explosions happen because anything that is in powdered form and is suspended in air, has a far more surface area exposed to oxygen per unit weight, than normal lumps of the same substance. This is true for industrial stuff like powdered coal, sawdust, and magnesium. Besides that, mundane substances can explode too – like  grain, flour, sugar, powdered milk and pollen.

All it takes to cause a disaster is a suspended combustible powder and a little electric arc formed from electrostatic discharge, friction or even hot surfaces – A little spark is enough.

Such settings are common in flour mills, where there is flour floating around literally everywhere. This is what caused a giant explosion in a flour mill in Minnesota on May 2nd, 1878, killing 18 workers. But that was more than 100 years ago. Kitchens are relatively safe because you don’t have enough flour in the air to catch fire and produce great volumes of air that are enough to cause an explosion.

This happens even today. From the year 1994 to the year 2003 there have been 115 such reported explosions in food processing industries in the US.

[Source 1] [Source 2] [Source 3]


The following is a simple experiment you can do at home (obviously with adult supervision) to understand the explosive nature of a harmless cooking ingredient. [Video]

What you need: Safety glasses, Tin can (with lid), Candle, Matches, a long Straw and fine white flour

  • Take a tin can, one with a relatively tighter lid. Make a hole at the lowest point in the side wall (just enough to fit in a straw).
  • Open it up and put in a handful of flour inside it. Now is the time to put on your safety glasses.
  • Now, burn a candle and carefully place it inside the can.
  • Close the lid, insert the straw into the hole. Now blow at the base of the can, in a way that flour stirs up inside without extinguishing the candle.
  • Watch the lid pop up 10 feet into the air.