When an H-bomb was launched & exploded in outer space (1962)


EXCERPTS: The US, worried that a Soviet nuclear bomb detonated in space could damage or destroy US intercontinental missiles, set up a series of high-altitude weapons tests called Project Fishbowl (itself part of the larger Operation Dominic) to find out for themselves what happens when nuclear weapons are detonated in space. High-altitude tests had been done before, but they were hastily set up and the results inconclusive. Fishbowl was created to take a more rigorous scientific approach.

Starfish Prime was a July 9, 1962, high-altitude nuclear test conducted by the United States, a joint effort of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Defense Atomic Support Agency. It was launched from Johnston Atoll and was the largest nuclear test conducted in outer space and one of five conducted by the US in space.

A Thor rocket carrying a W49 thermonuclear warhead (designed by Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory) and a Mk. 2 reentry vehicle was launched from Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, about 900 miles (1,450 km) west-southwest of Hawaii. The explosion took place at an altitude of 250 miles (400 km), above a point 19 miles (31 km) southwest of Johnston Atoll. It produced a yield equivalent to 1.4 megatonnes of TNT. The explosion was about 10° above the horizon as seen from Hawaii, at 11 PM Hawaii time.

[...] Starfish Prime caused an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that was far larger than expected, so much larger that it drove much of the instrumentation off scale, causing great difficulty in getting accurate measurements. The Starfish Prime electromagnetic pulse also made those effects known to the public by causing electrical damage in Hawaii, about 898 miles (1,445 km) away from the detonation point, knocking out about 300 streetlights, setting off numerous burglar alarms, and damaging a telephone company microwave link. The EMP damage to the microwave link shut down telephone calls from Kauai to the other Hawaiian islands.

[...] After the Starfish Prime detonation, bright auroras were observed in the detonation area, as well as in the southern conjugate region on the other side of the equator from the detonation. ... These auroral effects were partially anticipated by Nicholas Christofilos, a scientist who had earlier worked on the Operation Argus high-altitude nuclear shots. According to U.S. atomic veteran Cecil R. Coale, some hotels in Hawaii offered "rainbow bomb" parties on their roofs for Starfish Prime, contradicting some reports that the artificial aurora was unexpected.

[...] While some of the energetic beta particles followed the Earth's magnetic field and illuminated the sky, other high-energy electrons became trapped and formed radiation belts around the Earth. There was much uncertainty and debate about the composition, magnitude and potential adverse effects from this trapped radiation after the detonation. The weaponeers became quite worried when three satellites in low Earth orbit were disabled.

[...] So what do we make of all this? What conclusions may be drawn? The scientific conclusions are rather straight-forward — the existence of EMPs, the damage to satellites, the artificial aurorae and radiation belts — and have added to our knowledge.

But at what cost? I [Phil Plait] was alive and entering young adulthood at the end of the Cold War. I wasn’t born when Starfish Prime went off, but I do remember other tests, and I remember some of the nightmares I had as a kid about nuclear war. This wasn’t ancient history; it was just a few years ago. The concern over nuclear weapons is still real, as well it should be, even if the situation has evolved somewhat since then.

It may seem like madness now that there were two such huge powers (not including China, which was also a credible nuclear threat at the time) testing nuclear weapons on our own planet. Perhaps it was madness. Still, the idea of two enemies with such overwhelming capability to destroy each other and themselves is behind the premise of Mutually Assured Destruction — making it insane to attack, since it guarantees your own destruction.


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