How the Starfish Prime Nuclear Bomb Worked - blowing up the radiation belts for science

by | Jul 2, 2010 09:40 AM ET

Imagine you are a scientist. In 1958 there is a big discovery - some of the very first satellites launched by the United States discover the Van Allen radiation belts. Over the next couple of years they are further studied and characterized by more satellites.

So imagine that you are a scientist, and there are no nuclear proliferation or testing bans in place yet. What's the next thing you would do? Perhaps you would launch a nuclear bomb into space and try blowing up the belts, just to see what would happen. That, in essence, was the Starfish Prime project, which is described in vivid detail in the following video:

It was a "1.45 megaton weapon set to burst 400 kilometers high":

This far flung array was pointed solely toward seeking the answers to several objectives vital to the nation's defense needs. Of urgency was the the requirement for the evaluation of the effectiveness of nuclear detonations at high altitude for killing incoming ICBMs. This in turn to indicate the relative vulnerability of United States ICBMs and re-entry vehicles. Equally important was the need to know the effects of high altitude nuclear bursts on military command and control systems which require long-range communications. Another must was the ability to detect incoming ICBMs through a high altitude detonation environment for both defensive and offensive applications. One more answer was needed: How feasible was it to test nuclear weapons in outer space?

For most people on the ground, however, the explosion was more like the ultimate fire works display, with a mystery: What would it look like? Here is a description:

A Very Scary Light Show: Exploding H-Bombs In Space

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. Here it is...

The article goes into further detail about Van Allen and what he might have been hoping to learn from the experiments.

See also the top 10 amazing explosions:

[[[Jump to previous BFTP - The cutting of the Redwood forests of California]]]

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