The 50th anniversary of Starfish Prime: the nuke that shook the world

By Phil Plait | July 9, 2012 6:05 am

On July 9, 1962 — 50 years ago today — the United States detonated a nuclear weapon high above the Pacific Ocean. Designated Starfish Prime, it was part of a dangerous series of high-altitude nuclear bomb tests at the height of the Cold War. Its immediate effects were felt for thousands of kilometers, but it would also have a far-reaching aftermath that still touches us today.

In 1958, the Soviet Union called for a ban on atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons, and went so far as to unilaterally stop such testing. Under external political pressure, the US acquiesced. However, in late 1961 political pressures internal to the USSR forced Khrushchev to break the moratorium, and the Soviets began testing once again. So, again under pressure, the US responded with tests of their own.

It was a scary time to live in.

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.

Boom! Goes the dynamite

On July 9, 1962, the US launched a Thor missile from Johnston island, an atoll about 1500 kilometers (900 miles) southwest of Hawaii. The missile arced up to a height of over 1100 km (660 miles), then came back down. At the preprogrammed height of 400 km (240 miles), just seconds after 09:00 UTC, the 1.4 megaton nuclear warhead detonated.

And all hell broke loose.

1.4 megatons is the equivalent of 1.4 million tons of TNT exploding. However, nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from simple chemical explosives. TNT releases its energy in the form of heat and light. Nukes also generate heat and light, plus vast amounts of X-rays and gamma rays – high-energy forms of light – as well as subatomic particles like electrons and heavy ions.

When Starfish prime exploded, the effects were devastating. Here’s a video showing actual footage from the test, 50 years ago today:

As you can see, the explosion was roughly spherical; the shock wave expanding in all directions roughly equally since there is essentially no atmosphere at that height. Another video has many more views of the test; I’ve linked it directly to those sequences, but if you start at the beginning it’s actually an hour-long documentary on the test.

Nuke ’em ’til they glow

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Akin breakin' heart

By Phil Plait | April 16, 2010 1:00 pm

Response to both Obama’s space policy and my blog post about it were pretty much as I expected. Haters, lovers, people who didn’t actually read what I wrote or listened to what Obama actually said, some thoughtful, some knee jerk. The usual.

toddakinBut my favorite is from Congressman Todd Akin (R-MO), who, in a press release, posted this:

The decision by the Obama administration to gut NASA’s manned flight program does more than jeopardize the long term goals of solar system exploration, the cancellation of the space shuttles replacement will effectively leave the United States reliant upon the Soviet Union to grant us access to low earth orbit. As a member of the Armed Services Committee I am very concerned with that possibility, and as an American I am disappointed by the prospect.

It doesn’t surprise me that someone would erroneously say that Obama is gutting the manned space flight program, when we know he isn’t and when he may in fact be saving it. It doesn’t surprise me that people are forgetting that private industry is poised to take us into low Earth orbit before Constellation could have, though it’s odd for a "fiscally conservative" Republican Congressman — and therefore, one assume, pro-business — to forget such a thing.

It also doesn’t surprise me that someone would blame Obama about us having to rely on foreign partners for access to space after the Shuttle retires, and it certainly doesn’t surprise me that a Republican Congressman would say such a thing, even though this necessity came about because of President Bush’s decision to retire the Shuttle and not have a replacement ready for at least five years after.

But what I do find really interesting is that a Congressman on the Armed Services Committee would refer to Russia as "the Soviet Union".

Pssst! Congressman Akin: it’s the 21st century. It stopped being the USSR in 1991. I guess it’s hard to keep up with such things if you can’t see Russia from your state, though.

[Update (14:30 MT): Apparently, Congressman Akin’s release has been updated, replacing "Soviet Union" with "Russian Federation". My congratulations and thanks to his team. Now, if they could fix the other egregiously wrong things he said in that release, we’ll be copacetic.]

Tip o’ the Cossack hat to ScottW.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space
MORE ABOUT: Obama, Russia, Todd Akin, USSR

NASA spies on USSR hardware

By Phil Plait | March 23, 2010 8:00 am

I freely admit my headline is misleading, but I had to throw in a little Cold War propaganda given the pictures below. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has spotted Soviet lunar robots on the Moon, relics from the original Space Race.


On the left is the LRO image of the Luna 17 lander, which touched down on the Moon’s surface in late 1970, delivering the Lunakhod 1 rover (which eventually traveled over 10 km (6 miles) across the Moon’s surface). The image on the right is of Luna 21, which set the Lunakhod 2 rover down in 1973. Note the higher scale, which clearly shows the tracks of the rover as it moved around its base station.

That is so cool! And if you go to those links, there are closeups from the Soviet landers showing what the view looked like from the surface of the Moon all those decades ago.

And for an added bit of coolness, Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson dug up the story that both rovers were used by the Soviets to celebrate International Women’s Day. I’m old enough to remember how the Soviets were vilified by the American government… and while some of it may have been deserved, they were not the monsters they were portrayed as. I think Nancy’s story is an important one. We may have been opponents in the race to the Moon, and deadly enemies back on Earth, but we’re also all humans. At least in that respect, nothing has changed.

MORE ABOUT: LRO, Luna landers, Lunakhod, USSR

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