View of Starfish Prime from Maui Station, July 9, 1962. When the Starfish Prime atomic bomb exploded, charged particles from the blast collided with molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating an artificial aurora that could be seen off the coast of Zealand.
Why the United States once detonated an atomic bomb in space
The results of the 1962 Starfish Prime test serve as a warning of what could happen if the Earth’s magnetic field were once again blown up by high doses of radiation.
It was pitch black when Greg Spriggs’ father took his family to the highest point of Midway Atoll on July 8, 1962, and saw a fusion bomb.
“He was trying to see which way,” recalls Spriggs. “He thought there would be this little flicker, so I wanted everyone to be able to see it.” When the countdown was broadcast on shortwave radio, 4,444 viewers also “watch the bomb party” in Hawaii. I threw. The photographer pointed the lens at the horizon and discussed the optimal camera angle for capturing a thermonuclear explosion in space. It turns out that the
blast (a 1.4 megaton bomb, 500 times the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) was not subtle.
Nuclear Tests Near Space The
Starfish Prime exploded 250 miles above Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean and was one of the last and largest high-altitude nuclear tests. The resulting electromagnetic pulse caused a power outage in Hawaii, but tests allowed scientists to study how radiation affected the Earth’s upper atmosphere and radiation zones.
“When this nuclear weapon was launched, the entire sky was illuminated in all directions. It looked like noon,” says Spriggs. Starfish Prime exploded at an altitude of 250 miles, which the International Space Station is orbiting today. Up to 15 minutes after the first blast, charged particles from the blast collided with molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating an artificial aurora that looks far away to New Zealand.
“The sky seemed to spit out a new sun. It burned for a short time, but it was long enough to burn the sky,” read Hirotribune Herald’s report. An accompanying electromagnetic pulse washed away the radio station and rang an emergency siren and a dim streetlight in Hawaii.
The following year, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, leaving the universe bomb-free for nearly 60 years. However, the Starfish Prime results serve as a warning of what could happen if the Earth’s magnetic field were re-blasted with high doses of radiation from another nuclear weapon or a natural source such as the Sun. ..
The memory of the day remains with Spriggs, a weapons scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where he works on the preservation and analysis of archived nuclear test footage. “A few years later, I told his father,’ If I knew I would be a nuclear weapons physicist, I would have been more careful,’ he said.
The Cold War gets hot.
A year ago, in 1961, international negotiations banning nuclear tests worsened. Three years without testing, the Soviet Union and the United States lifted the voluntary moratorium, and the Soviet Union carried out 31 experimental explosions, including the largest atomic bomb ever exploded, the Tsar Bomba. It was launched in October 1961, about 13,000 feet above the Arctic island.
The space race was in its infancy back then, and the U.S. military didn’t have any qualms about sending almost anything into space. The Department of Defense was in the midst of a separate project to put 500 million copper needles into orbit to try to reflect radio waves and help long-distance communication. There was even a plan, which ultimately fizzled, to set off a nuclear blast on the moon. Scientists and military figures were keen to know what would happen if a nuclear explosion were set off in space, especially how it might interact with Earth’s magnetosphere. Just two years earlier, America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, accidentally discovered that Earth is encircled by donuts of intense radiation held in place by its magnetic field. They were subsequently named Van Allen belts after James Van Allen, the University of Iowa scientist who discovered them.
THE SOUNDS OF THE VAN ALLEN BELTS NASA’s
Van Allen Probes recorded these chorus waves in space above Earth. These waves are created by electrons spiraling along magnetic field lines around Earth. They then interact with other electrons in the region to accelerate them to higher speeds or push them into Earth’s upper atmosphere. “As Van Allen said when he discovered the radiation belts, space is not empty, space is radioactive,” says David Sibeck, a scientist for NASA’s Van Allen Space Probes mission. “Van Allen’s discovery was worrying because it said any future spacecraft or astronaut that we send up is going to be exposed to this radiation. And that was a shocker back then.” Before the test, scientists thought the impact of Starfish Prime on Earth’s radiation belts would be minimal. During a press conference in May 1962, President John F. Kennedy told reporters in a tongue-in-cheek tone, “I know there has been disturbance about the Van Allen belt, but Van Allen says it is not going to affect the belt.”
But Van Allen was wrong.
Nuclear lift off
After four days of delays, waiting for the perfect weather, Starfish Prime was launched on the tip of a Thor rocket from Johnston Atoll, an island about 750 nautical miles southwest of Hawaii. The military also sent up 27 smaller missiles laden with scientific instruments to measure its effects. Airplanes and boats got into position to record