"...And the Rockets Red Glare, the Bombs Bursting in--well, the Void of Space, Actually..."
July 2, 2010 7:29 AM   Subscribe

A Nuclear Fireworks Show over Hawaii: With the 4th of July approaching, what could be a more fitting tribute to the American spirit than this awesome pyrotechnical display seen over Hawaii in 1962, when America detonated a 1.45 megaton hydrogen bomb in outer space? Especially considering the circumstances. On the very same day that he announced the discovery of the massive radiation belt surrounding the Earth that now bears his name, American scientist James Van Allen joined the American military in planning a secret project (code named: "Starfish Prime") to see if they could destroy it. According to science historian James Fleming, this all-American project respresents "the first occasion I've ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up."
posted by saulgoodman (40 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
American scientist James Van Allen joined the American military in planning a secret project (code named: "Starfish Prime") to see if they could destroy it.


So, what you're telling me is that my teachers were wrong and life is like a cartoonish video game?



Awesome.
posted by The Whelk at 7:33 AM on July 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


They stole idea from this movie from the year before.
posted by octothorpe at 7:36 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Obligatory Mr. Show link: Blow up the moon.
posted by Optamystic at 7:39 AM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Back then we weren't afraid to destroy the environment. Look what's become of us!
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:40 AM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


God Bless America
posted by slogger at 7:42 AM on July 2, 2010


Ha, I was just working up a post on this. I guess other people on Metafilter just might listen to NPR too, eh?

Anyway, this page has some info on other tests in that same operation.

Also, the Damn Interesting writeup.

The Wikipedia article also has lots of good info.
posted by kmz at 7:43 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I usually groan at the "band name" jokes, but Atomic Rainbow Over Honolulu? Come on!
posted by Sys Rq at 7:43 AM on July 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


James Van Allen joined the American military in planning a secret project to see if they could destroy [the massive radiation belt surrounding the Earth].

After the explosion, scientists reported seeing what appeared to be an album cover shattering and heard a voice commanding someone to "kneel before Zod."
posted by mattdidthat at 7:45 AM on July 2, 2010


You can't make this stuff up. "Since the beginning of time, mankind has yearned to destroy the sun," indeed.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:50 AM on July 2, 2010


According to science historian James Fleming, this all-American project respresents "the first occasion I've ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up."

I'm pretty sure this sort of sentiment should go on our currency somewhere.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:00 AM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


*salutes flag*
posted by DU at 8:03 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sometimes war games can get to a strange place where the inexorable logic leads to an unreasonable exercise of power for reasons that look strange at a distance. The whole concept is a little surreal. I like to imagine the meeting like this:

UNDERLING: Sir, report from this Van Allen character, he's discovered a massive belt of radiation, looming over the Earth!
GENERAL: Is it dangerous?
PRESIDENT: It's radiation, isn't it? Doesn't that mean it's automatically dangerous?
SOCIAL SCIENTIST: It might not be a threat to us.
GENERAL: Can we blow it up?
PHYSICIST: We might not be able to blow it up.
GENERAL: You mean that we can't destroy it? That sounds very threatening indeed. Just a big strap —
UNDERLING: — belt, sir —
GENERAL: — hovering over us. Like the Sword of Damocles —
UNDERLING: — a radioactive Sword of Damocles —
GENERAL: — waiting to descend, taunting us with its invulnerability, daring us to do something about it. The belt, the belt, DAMN YOU FATHER, THE BELT!

Awkward pause in the room

GENERAL: And I'm back!
PHYSICIST: Even if you blow it up, won't it just leave a lot of ... radiation?
PRESIDENT: Yes, but it will be our radiation, dammit, American radiation! And we've been wanting to test nuclear weapons in space for a while, anyway.
GENERAL: Right. We want to see if we can detect Russkies incoming through background radiation. They stopped stopping testing, so we have to stop stopping testing!
PHYSICIST: Why don't we just leave the radiation we have in place?
PRESIDENT: Un-American radiation?
VAN ALLEN: Sorry I'm late. Let's blow up this thing I just found!
posted by adipocere at 8:05 AM on July 2, 2010 [32 favorites]


The US and USSR both found out that the electromagnetic pulses from such explosions messed things up badly across a wide area on the ground (and presumably any airborne or satellite electronics also were at risk). That, I suspect, ended the notion of using multiple such explosions in space to defend against incoming missiles from the other side. Shortly after that the Cuban missile crisis was resolved.

"Between October 15 and November 1, the time period during which the Cuban Missile Crisis took place, six nuclear tests took place in the Johnston Island area of the Pacific Ocean....
...
... DAY 13: Sunday, October 28
High Altitude Russian Nuclear Test conducted at Kapustin Yar. Hydrogen Bomb on Rocket. Yield approx. 300 Kilotons.
...
Thursday, November 1
... High Altitude Russian Nuclear Test conducted at Kapustin Yar. Hydrogen Bomb on Rocket. Yield approx. 300 Kilotons. "

http://www.vce.com/crisis.html

"Nuclear tests at high altitudes, summary:
From 1958 to 1962, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. conducted over a dozen nuclear tests in the Earth's upper atmosphere or in space--the highest at an altitude of 540 km. ..."
http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/nuclear/hane.html

In retrospect I wonder if these last few high altitude tests by both the US and USSR weren't last-minute attempts to confirm such a defense was going to work if war broke out over Cuba -- that failed for both sides.
posted by hank at 8:11 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the 'Damned Interesting Writeup':
some artificial radiation bands were created that eventually disabled 1/3 of the low orbit satellites in orbit.

So rather than get rid of the radiation belt, they created new ones. I've heard that some amount of the radiation in the Van Allen belts, even to this day, was put there by the various atmospheric nuclear bomb tests that they used to conduct before they came to their senses.
posted by eye of newt at 8:16 AM on July 2, 2010


Gaah how fucking stupid!
posted by Mister_A at 8:18 AM on July 2, 2010


I'm having trouble believing there could be a significant fraction of the belt composed of particles from human nuclear tests. The Sun is pretty big you know.

PRESIDENT: It's radiation, isn't it? Doesn't that mean it's automatically dangerous?

Well, to satellites and astronauts, it IS dangerous.
posted by DU at 8:24 AM on July 2, 2010


The rocket's name was THOR? That's just awesome.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:33 AM on July 2, 2010


Well, the Belts are not all that heavy duty. You don't need a lot of stuff in space for it to be a problem. So, yes, a little human test can do just fine, because we put a lot of the right stuff at just the right spot. Robert L. Forward (science fiction writer [Dragon's Egg, Rocheworld] and physicist) had a proposed system to actually drain the Van Allen Belt with tethers, just by charging them up and letting electrostatic repulsion deflect the charged particles in the belt into our atmosphere.

Supposedly, we could have dropped the population of the belt to 1% in just about half a year. Good for satellites, but it might be bad for some forms of lightning. And, frankly, humans haven't had a great long-term track record in altering chunks of the planet for our short-term convenience.
posted by adipocere at 8:48 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


The rocket's name was THOR? That's just awesome.

If they had nicknamed the warhead "Mjöllnir" that would only have exponentially increased the awesomeness.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:49 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


So rather than get rid of the radiation belt, they created new ones. I've heard that some amount of the radiation in the Van Allen belts, even to this day, was put there by the various atmospheric nuclear bomb tests that they used to conduct before they came to their senses.

I'm really skeptical that the high-energy alpha particles produced by nuclear bomb tests are even quantifiable compared to the volume of protons produced by the solar wind and trapped by the magnetosphere. Especially when you consider that atomic bomb alpha radiation is comparatively low-energy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:50 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Heaven help us if we ever actually discover the chronosynclastic infundibulum.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:56 AM on July 2, 2010


Holy freaking Christ. The things we used to get up to....
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:08 AM on July 2, 2010


Great post.

For the curious about nukes in space, I got some great replies to this AskMe.
posted by Artw at 9:19 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


According to science historian James Fleming, this all-American project respresents "the first occasion I've ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up."

That's just not true. Every time someone discovers a building more than 15 years old in Las Vegas, they immediately blow it up on TV.
posted by rusty at 9:23 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


The good professor was being a little hyperbolic, I'm afraid.

Nobody was trying to destroy anything. They were trying to disrupt the belts and see what kind of effects a high-altitude blast might cause, but there was no illusion about whether they'd blow it up.

Not to say that these sorts of plans were completely rational. Edward Teller did, in fact, propose nuking the moon... to see what kind of disturbance it would cause.

(I'll see if I can find a primary document in the next five minutes to illustrate.)
posted by cgs06 at 9:25 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Edward Teller was always a great proponent of finding peaceful uses for blowing things up.
posted by Artw at 9:27 AM on July 2, 2010


Alas, the primary is a book that's not online. Here's a secondary though. I also mention this and some other schemes in Sun in a Bottle.
posted by cgs06 at 9:32 AM on July 2, 2010


If he wasn't an utter bastard who sold out Oppenheimer (too communist because he didn't want BIGGER BOMBS) I'd be quite fond of Teller as a historical crazy scientist figure.
posted by Artw at 9:38 AM on July 2, 2010


The good professor was being a little hyperbolic, I'm afraid.

Well, to be fair, the professor's exact quote only claimed the Van Allen and the military intended to "blow it up," not necessarily destroy it. But my understanding is they did think destroying it in the process wouldn't necessarily have been undesirable and wasn't outside the range of possible outcomes.

posted by saulgoodman at 9:47 AM on July 2, 2010


Teller also advocated using a series of atomic bombs to excavate a harbor in Alaska.
posted by thewittyname at 9:49 AM on July 2, 2010


I know someone who would totally get behind that these days. Especially if there was an east-coast reactor accident that she could decry at the same time.
posted by Artw at 9:51 AM on July 2, 2010


Also, this test fried Telstar, shortly after Joe Meek did it in sound.
posted by sonascope at 10:14 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can imagine the conversation.... US Military to AT&T: no, no, you're probably just holding it wrong.
posted by Artw at 10:18 AM on July 2, 2010


Good news everyone! We get to nuke the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico instead!
posted by GuyZero at 10:36 AM on July 2, 2010


Ah, yes.
We just discovered something that could be dangerous. Let's destroy it.
posted by Drasher at 10:57 AM on July 2, 2010


I'm really skeptical that the high-energy alpha particles produced by nuclear bomb tests are even quantifiable compared to the volume of protons produced by the solar wind and trapped by the magnetosphere.
--KirkJobSluder

Yes. During another atomic-bomb-Van Allen belt experiment called Project Century they purposely pumped high energy into the belt and found that it lasted about a year, which is much longer than they expected, but a lot shorter than I had implied.
posted by eye of newt at 8:03 PM on July 2, 2010


I can't find any other source on this Project Century thing. In any case the Deputy Director of the Defense Special Weapons Agency also mentions the one year date.
posted by eye of newt at 8:13 PM on July 2, 2010


Speaking of Teller, there's my favorite insane Teller nuke idea, The bomb-pumped laser.
posted by barc0001 at 2:47 AM on July 3, 2010


Speaking of speaking of Teller, Teller Speaks!

Also, um ka-boom! or something on-topic like that.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:41 AM on July 3, 2010


This video has really great footage, and important informational context of Starfish (prime) (sorry, just realized it is at the howstuffworks link in the original post, but it is incredible, and is very must see)
My favorite worth tracking down is a documentary, with great declassified footage, one that Mr. Shatner narrates, "Rainbow Bombs, Nukes in Space" I think it was called. (neat pdf discussing some atmospheric nuclear effects Attenuation, Refraction, Scintillation, Backscatter, which play a part in why they were testing this; to see if they could disable a series of incoming icbm's [in the video above they discuss launching missiles during the starfish test, to examine the effects on their flight and effectiveness.])

But since I added nothing new, I suggest all future nuclear tests be done at ground level, the reason: Rope Tricks. When we have failed to destroy that which we know not, the only thing left to do is redefine success, use (the one and only) Doc Edgerton's devices (amazing video on this link) and capture the explosive power of destruction in ultra high speed (1/1,000,000 of a second) awesome. Like the 'ploughshares' projects, but instead of "geological engineering", turning nuclear explosions into cross culturally unifying ultra-high-speed photography you-tube clips.
NNSA/DOE PDF on Rapatronic techniques, rope tricks, and coming closer to the opposite of geologic time

In this paper from 2008, C. Bronk Ramsey discusses how there was nearly a doubling of the ammounts of radiocarbons in the atmosphere via atmospheric nuclear weapons testing; he also suggests that within approximately the next decade the atmospheric concentrations will have fallen back to pre-bomb levels.
posted by infinite intimation at 9:36 AM on July 5, 2010


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