The moon at night

Dear Evil Engineer: How could I steal the Moon and become a star?

Image credit: Dreamstime

This month’s correspondent is not only ambitious but also in a hurry.

Evil engineer moon illustration

E&T Magazine

Image credit: E&T Magazine

Dear Evil Engineer,

I have enjoyed a successful career, and was recently included in a list of Villainous Disruptors of 2018 published by Evil & Treachery (E&T). Other villains reaching this stage in their careers may be ready to hang up the Mao suit and settle into quiet retirement. However, I still have all the plucky ambition of a pre-2018 Elon Musk, combined with four decades of experience managing high-impact evil operations with a global reach.

I believe that my crowning achievement is still to come; after a long consultation process, I have decided that I am going to steal the Moon. I would like this wrapped up in time to qualify for E&T’s Villainous Disruptors of 2019 shortlist. How should I proceed?


A resolute villain


Dear villain,

Congratulations on your nod in E&T: a very fine publication. I am sure that you still have many wicked deeds ahead of you, but the project you propose is overambitious.I doubt that any freelance villain or evil organisation is capable of this feat; you may find more success and fulfillment if you set SMART goals for yourself (with an emphasis on the ‘A’ for‘attainable’). Let me explain:

If you intend to literally steal the Moon by taking it out of orbit and moving it elsewhere, it’ll need boosting to escape velocity: the minimum speed necessary for it to escape Earth’s gravitational influence. The most efficient way of getting the Moon there is to shove it in the direction it is moving at that instant.

The trouble is that the Moon is ridiculously big and therefore requires a ridiculously big shove to change its direction. Just how big? An object reaches escape velocity when its kinetic energy and gravitational potential energy are equal in magnitude,so the amount of extra kinetic energy you need to provide is equal to the difference in size between the Moon’s gravitational potential energy and its current kinetic energy. Assuming space is a perfect vacuum offering no resistance (it isn’t) and the Moon’s orbit is perfectly circular (it isn’t) it would take an extra 3.8x1028J of energy to remove the Moon from orbit. This is the equivalent of almost two billion Tsar Bombas, which – as all well-educated villains know – is the most powerful known nuclear device ever created. Even if you manufactured these Tsar Bombas, flew them to the Moon,and detonated them all at the right moment, not all their energy would be converted into kinetic energy: much would be released as heat and light and some would be wasted blasting chunks off the Moon.

Given the inevitable fracturing associated with this, perhaps you are considering whether breaking the Moon into pieces and towing them away one by one would be easier? It is not. Mining the entire Moon is out of the question, and placing a thermonuclear device within the Moon and detonating it in an attempt to break it into pieces requires even more energy than blasting it out of orbit. This is because gravitationally bound systems have lower gravitational potential energy than the sum of their parts, so considerable excess energy is required to overcome their binding energy and force them apart. For the Moon, this is in the region of 1.2x1029J, and with that we’re heading towards the equivalent of a trillion Tsar Bombas. In this apocalyptic scenario, remnants of the Moon would crash to the Earth, killing everyone there and destabilising the planet. The leftover bits of Moon may, however, form a charming set of planetary rings.

Rather than displacing the Moon, you may consider hiding it instead. Carbon nanotube-based ultrablack paints like Vantablack and Singularity Black absorb almost all light and are as close as we can come to simulating the appearance of black holes. A Moon slathered with ultrablack paint would absorb all but a glimmer of the sunlight falling on it, rendering it sort-of invisible against the dark sky. However, there remains the insurmountable problem of scale; assuming the Moon is a perfectly smooth sphere (it isn’t), it would require approximately a billion cubic metres of paint just to cover its Earth-facing side with a 50-micron-thick coat. Based on the price of Vantablack samples, this task would likely run to quadrillions of pounds… and that’s not to mention the unprecedented challenge of manufacturing this much ultrablack paint, transporting it to the Moon, and painting the exceptionally delicate substance all over its surface.

So, moving, smashing, and hiding the Moon are not realistic options. My final suggestion to you is this: try colonising the Moon. It’s a classic approach to evil more aligned with the style of Imperialist Age explorers than future-facing technovillains, but simple can prove most effective. Simply launch rockets full of astronauts, living resources, and weapons to the Moon, then thumb your nose at Earth while mouthing “What are you going to do about it, anyway?” and jiggling your weapon in a threatening manner. This way, you can claim the Moon as your own without destabilising Earth and killing its inhabitants.

This cannot wrapped up in time to make E&T’s 2019 Villainous Disruptors shortlist, I’m afraid, but if you crack on, you may still get to be depicted by Ralph Fiennes in a Hollywood dramatisation of the feat.


The Evil Engineer

PS: If you are apocalyptically inclined (I try never to make assumptions or judgements about my readers’ villainous preferences) please go ahead and manufacture billions of Tsar Bombas, but I could think of more creative things to do with them than sending them to the Moon.

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