Here's Why Nuclear Bombs Form Mushroom Clouds

It's a terrifying site that has haunted humankind since the dawn of the atomic age: a fiery mushroom cloud looming over a devastated landscape, the symbol of our mutual destruction. We know instinctively that this kind of explosion is different from others, but why? Why do the explosions of nuclear weapons like atom and hydrogen bombs create such frightening formations of smoke, dust, vapor, and debris? What makes them different from regular ole missiles, bombs, and other non-nuclear explosives?

According to Live Science, nuclear bombs explode in a sphere of hellfire just like any other type or size of bomb. The thing is, the explosions they create are so huge and hot that the core of the explosion rises higher than the rest of the sphere that isn't as hot. This super-hot air shoots up into a column that resembles a mushroom's stem. The cooler air around the stem rushes in behind the rising hot air, distorting the bubble into a doughnut shape, also called a torus. The hot air from the explosion comes close to creating a vacuum that sucks up debris, dirt, and anything else unfortunate enough to be near it.

Would a nuclear bomb make a mushroom cloud in space?

Now we know why nuclear bombs form mushroom clouds on Earth, but what if we were to say, get into some kind of Robert Heinlein-style standoff with a renegade moon colony one day in the future and were forced to nuke our only natural satellite? Would the nuclear explosion form a mushroom cloud on the moon, as well?

Setting off an atom bomb on the moon would surely have devastating effects, but it would not form a mushroom cloud. Computational engineer Katie Lundquist told Live Science that this is because there's no air on the moon. And without air, the torus would not form. There would be no disparity in air densities to suck up the surrounding air and debris. "You need an atmosphere so they can have that fluid material," Lundquist said. "It's not going to happen in a vacuum." But it would probably shower the Earth with harmful radiation, so hopefully we just steer clear of that option in general in the future.