In A Nutshell
On July 9, 1962, the US launched a thermonuclear warhead into space from the Pacific Ocean. The resulting explosion turned the skies into a technicolor light show of nuclear fallout. In Hawaii, where the effects were most visible, hotels arranged “rainbow bomb parties” so their guests could have a rooftop view of the radioactive particles drifting across the sky.
The Whole Bushel
James Van Allen was a renowned physicist and space scientist during the Cold War. In 1958, he discovered a series of particle rings around the planet that were held in place by the Earth’s magnetic field. Known as the Van Allen belts, the rings are made of highly energetic electrons and protons and are believed to be composed of particles that have drifted through space under the power of cosmic rays and solar wind until they wound up trapped in our magnetic field.
We still don’t know much about them—other than the fact that they wreak havoc with satellites—but one theory is that they contain a fairly respectable amount of antimatter. There are proposed plans to build a magnetic “scoop” that could essentially mine antiprotons from the belts. But there was a time when we had different plans for the Van Allen belts.
There was a time when we tried to blow them up.
The very same day that Van Allen announced the discovery of this mysterious ring of magnetic particles, he hatched a plan with the US military to fire a megaton-class W49 thermonuclear warhead into the radiation belts to see if they could disrupt them. They didn’t wait to study them, didn’t wait to figure out what they actually did—didn’t even wait to form a backup plan in case there were any repercussions to lobbing a nuclear bomb into an already-radioactive stream of cosmic particles that blanketed the planet. They just went for it.
In conjunction with the Atomic Energy Commission and the Defense Atomic Support Agency, the military came up with Operation Fishbowl, a blanket designation for three high-altitude nuclear tests that were all performed in 1962. All the missiles were to be launched from an island in the Pacific Ocean. Two of the earlier launches were aborted at the last minute due to technical problems in the missiles, and as the Sun set on the evening of July 9, 1962, physicists and technicians were going through the final checks on the third and most powerful warhead yet, Starfish Prime. This one was meant for the Van Allen belts, and it was going to be spectacular.
As the minutes ticked by, the entire Western world held its breath in anticipation. Newspapers in Honolulu had spent the day telling everyone about the “dazzling” display that would be visible that night, and spectators filled the streets with their eyes on the sky. Hotels opened their rooftops and advertised lavish rainbow bomb parties that would allow VIPs to view the spectacle in booze-moistened comfort. Everybody was lining up for a front-row view of the end.
The warhead detonated as planned, and the view was breathtaking indeed. The 1.4-megaton explosion tore through the midnight darkness and painted the ocean in searing white light. As the mushroom head dissipated, it was replaced with a brilliant green glow that soon faded to a soft red aurora. White forks of plasma streaked out of the aurora and raced in both directions across the sky, tracing the magnetic Van Allen belt.
But while the sky burned with the greatest fireworks show the planet has ever seen, chaos shook the ground. The electromagnetic pulse from the explosion was bigger than anybody had expected, and Hawaii took the brunt of the shock. City-wide blackouts erupted across the islands, electrical components malfunctioned, and garage doors began opening and closing by themselves.
In the aftermath of Starfish Prime, one-third of the satellites in low orbit were crippled beyond repair, and irradiated particles from the bomb aligned to the Earth’s magnetic field and formed their own radiation belt in the upper atmosphere. This new, man-made belt lasted for five years. The Van Allen belts were completely unharmed.