Detonating a nuclear bomb seems like a risky business in general,
but in the early 1960’s,
the US and the Soviet Union were busy trying to figure out
what would happen if you set one off in space.
The answer turned out to be something they didn’t really expect.
A nuclear blast could cause a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse, or EMP,
a powerful man-made burst of electromagnetic energy that could
basically wipe out communications here on Earth.
It was a whole new way to use the bomb,
and they kind of discovered it by accident.
It all started in 1958,
when the US launched its first satellite Explorer 1.
NASA的科学家James Van Allen在上面安装了Geiger计数器
NASA scientist James Van Allen equipped it with a Geiger counter,
because he wanted to measure radiation at different altitudes,
a project he’d already been working on using balloons.
The readings that came back were strange.
Radiation levels seemed to increase with altitude,
then suddenly dropped to 0, then increase,
and then suddenly dropped to 0 again.
More testing showed that readingsthat looked like 0 were actually
because the radiation levels were so high that the detector couldn’t handle it.
但是spring Van Allen意识到他有了新发现：
But that spring Van Allen realized hemade a new discovery: that there were at
least two belts around the planet
between 1,000 and 60,000 kilometers up
with extra high concentrations ofcharged particles like electrons and protons.
Today we call these belts the
VAN ALLEN带 我们知道它们
Van Allen belts and we know that they’re
mostly made of particles from solar wind and cosmic rays,
held in place by Earth’s magnetic field.
我们也知道 由于太阳活动 可能有不止两个带区
We also know that depending on solar activity there can be more than two of them.
那年五月 VAN ALLEN
In May of thatyear Van Allen presented his discovery
at a press conference at the NationalAcademy in Washington DC.
Later that day,
the US military asked
for his help detonating nuclear weapons in the Van
Allen belts. US military officialssuspected the Soviets were doing
high-altitude nuclear tests, and at thetime nobody really knew how
high-altitude explosion would differ fromone here on Earth.
And the Van Allen Belts added a whole new element
because nuclear blasts release lots of charged
particles and here with these two huge bands of more charged particles.
The US was worried that interference
from the Van Allen belts might hide incoming missiles or
that they could somehow be used to steera blast.
So they decided to learn more
about how atomic bombs behaved at high altitudes by detonating a bunch of them.
During those tests they ended up
measuring electric signals so high they thought it
was a fluke caused by other flaws in the instruments they were using.
But they had to wait a while to figure out what was
because later that year the USSR called for a ban on
high-altitude nuclear testing, and the USagreed.
Then in 1961 the USSR started
testing their own nukes at high altitudes anyway,
and the US quickly
continued their own, including a testknown as Starfish Prime.
Starfish Prime was humanity’s first hydrogen bomb detonated at a high altitude.
It detonated 400 kilometers above a point
near its launch from Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean.
It was also the biggestbomb ever set off in space,
100 times more powerful
than the Hiroshima bomb and with a blast equal to
about 1.4 million tons of TNT.
But withso little air around it, it didn’t make a fireball.
Instead, the charged particleszooming away from Starfish Prime caused
a huge Aurora that could be seen for thousands of kilometers around Johnston Island.
And then, burglar alarms started going off
in Hawaii more than a thousand kilometers away.
27 rockets followed Starfish Prime to
gather data and even they weren’t equipped
to measure what happened.
What the USlearned was that the oddly high
measurement from earlier tests weren’tglitches. High-altitude nuclear
explosions are just very different.
Inthe near vacuum up there, the energy
from nuclear blast sends out lots of freeelectrons.
Those electrons create a brief
but extremely powerful electromagneticpulse: an EMP. Starfish Prime’s EMP was so strong,
it affected the flow ofelectricity on Earth thousands of
kilometers from Johnston Island, causingblackouts and electrical malfunctions in
Hawaii and disabling at least sixsatellites.
But that was in a relatively
isolated area. Today an EMP could be used to disable an entire country.
A US commission to study EMPs in 2008 estimated
that an EMP attack could kill
90 % of the US population within 12 months
since so much of the way we live depends on satellites and the electrical grid.
The US military ran a
few more tests after Starfish Prime,
but they kept things a lot smaller and the
data from those tests is stillclassified.
Only a year later the
USSR proposed another moratorium on high-altitude nukes: the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963,
and we haven’t set off any nukes in space since then.
So in the end humanity was
probably right to be worried about the
consequences of detonating nuclear bombsin space, but mainly because they
accidentally stumbled upon a way to make the aftermath of the bomb even worse.
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