Back in the summer of 1962, the U.S. blew up a hydrogen bomb in outer space, some 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean. It was a weapons test, but one that created a man-made light show that has never been equaled — and hopefully never will.
If you are wondering why anybody would deliberately detonate an H-bomb in space, the answer comes from a conversation we had with science historian James Fleming of Colby College: "Well, I think a good entry point to the story is May 1, 1958, when James Van Allen, the space scientist, stands in front of the National Academy in Washington, D.C., and announces that they’ve just discovered something new about the planet," he told us.
Van Allen described how the Earth is surrounded by belts of high-energy particles — mainly protons and electrons — that are held in place by the magnetic fields.
Today these radiation belts are called Van Allen belts. Now comes the surprise: While looking through the Van Allen papers at the University of Iowa to prepare a Van Allen biography, Fleming discovered "that [the] very same day after the press conference, [Van Allen] agreed with the military to get involved with a project to set off atomic bombs in the magnetosphere to see if they could disrupt it."
The plan was to send rockets hundreds of miles up, higher than the Earth's atmosphere, and then detonate nuclear weapons to see: a) If a bomb's radiation would make it harder to see what was up there (like incoming Russian missiles!); b) If an explosion would do any damage to objects nearby; c) If the Van Allen belts would move a blast down the bands to an earthly target (Moscow! for example); and — most peculiar — d) if a man-made explosion might "alter" the natural shape of the belts.
The scientific basis for these proposals is not clear. Fleming is trying to figure out if Van Allen had any theoretical reason to suppose the military could use the Van Allen belts to attack a hostile nation. He supposes that at the height of the Cold War, the most pressing argument for a military experiment was, "if we don’t do it, the Russians will." And, indeed, the Russians did test atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs in space.
In any case, says the science history professor, "this is the first occasion I've ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up."
The Americans launched their first atomic nuclear tests above the Earth's atmosphere in 1958. Atom bombs had little effect on the magnetosphere, but the hydrogen bomb of July 9, 1962, did. Code-named "Starfish Prime" by the military, it literally created an artificial extension of the Van Allen belts that could be seen across the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand.
In Honolulu, the explosions were front page news. "N-Blast Tonight May Be Dazzling: Good View Likely," said the Honolulu Advertiser. Hotels held what they called "Rainbow Bomb Parties" on rooftops and verandas. When the bomb burst, people told of blackouts and strange electrical malfunctions, like garage doors opening and closing on their own. But the big show was in the sky.
Starfish Prime Test Interim Report by Commander JTF-8 - 7:45.............................. - STARFISH PRIME, was one of the high-altitude nuclear tests in the Operation Fishbowl series conducted in the Pacific Proving Ground in 1962. It was launched in the Johnston Island area to an altitude of about 400 kilometers by a Thor rocket and had a yield of 1.4 megatons.
The test evaluated the capabilities of an antiballistic missile to operate in a nuclear environment and the vulnerability of a U.S. reentry vehicle to survive a nearby nuclear blast. It also provided information on the ability of a U.S. radar system to detect and track reentry vehicles. Another goal was to discern the effects of a high-altitude blast on command and control systems, which were shown to be vulnerable in earlier high-altitude tests. The final goal was to obtain information on the feasibility of testing in outer space.
Fishbowl Auroral Sequences - 7:50 - Color - Silent - BLUEGILL and STARFISH were high-altitude nuclear tests, part of Operation Fishbowl, conducted in the Johnston Island area of the Pacific Proving Ground in 1962. These tests produced auroral effects, a special feature of explosions where the extreme brightness of the fireball is visible at great distances. Within a second or two after the burst, a brilliant aurora appears from the bottom of the fireball.
The formation of the aurora is attributed to the motion, along the lines of the earths magnetic field, of beta particles emitted by the radioactive fission fragments. About a minute after the detonation, the aurora could be observed in the Samoan Islands, 2000 miles from the detonation. These auroras could be seen for approximately 20 minutes. The video shows footage of the auroras from Somoa, Mauna Loa (Hawaiian Islands) and Tongtapu (Tonga Islands) at various film speeds.
Dominic on Fishbowl Phenomenon - 1:12 - Color - Silent - Operation Fishbowl was the high-altitude testing portion of a larger Operation Dominic I. This video is a compilation of footage of the five nuclear tests comprising Operation Fishbowl conducted in the Johnston Island area of the Pacific Proving Ground in 1962. A high-altitude burst is one occurring above 100,000 feet. The video does not identify the date, time or name of the tests.
When a nuclear weapon detonates at a high altitude, many of the effects are attenuated. Most of the x-ray energy is absorbed in the air, which decreases the fireball temperature. Absorption of thermal x-ray energy also decreases the energy available for a shock wave. This all results in the development of a toroidal or donut-shaped cloud instead of the usual mushroom shape of ground or near ground explosions.
This also shows the auroral effect of high-altitude explosions where the extreme brightness of the fireball is visible at great distances. Within a second or two after the burst, a brilliant aurora appears from the bottom of the fireball. The formation of the aurora is attributed to the motion, along the lines of the earths magnetic field, of beta particles emitted by the radioactive fission fragments. About a minute after the detonation, the aurora can be observed from as far away as 2000 miles. These auroras can be seen for approximately 20 minutes.
Fishbowl XR Summary - 34:38 - Black&White - Silent - The video shows the five, rocket-launched, Operation Fishbowl tests at various camera speeds and from different camera locations. Operation Fishbowl was the Department of Defenses high-altitude testing portion of Operation Dominic I, conducted in the Johnston Island area of the Pacific Proving Ground in 1962. In a high-altitude blast, many of the effects are attenuated, resulting in a toroidal or donut-shaped cloud instead of the mushroom cloud from a surface burst. These weapons-effects tests, launched by Strypi, Thor, and Nike Hercules rockets, were as follows:
STARFISH PRIME, July 9, 400-kilometer altitude, 1.4 megaton
CHECKMATE, October 20, tens of kilometers altitude, low (less than 20 kt)
BLUEGILL 3 PRIME, October 26, tens of kilometers altitude, submegaton (less than 1 Mt, but more than 200 kt)
KINGFISH, November 1, tens of kilometers altitude; submegaton (less than 1 Mt, but more than 200 kt)
TIGHTROPE, November 4, tens of kilometers altitude, low (less than 20 kt)
Two goals of these tests were to determine if radiation and blast and heat effects of high- altitude detonations were capable of neutralizing an enemy reentry vehicle and capable of determining the blackout effects on radar and communications of various yields and altitudes of bursts.