There was a little bit of it in the late 50s and early 60s, just before
the Test Ban Treaty outlawed it.
Being the last man on the Moon is a | Henry Spencer he...@spsystems.net
very dubious honor. -- Gene Cernan | (aka he...@zoo.toronto.edu)
>>I have heard veiled references to actually testing nuclear weapons in space.
>>Does anyone know if this actually took place?
>There was a little bit of it in the late 50s and early 60s, just before
>the Test Ban Treaty outlawed it.
Operation Argus was the only clandestine test series in the 17 year history of
atmospheric testing. It was secretly conducted in
the South Atlantic, 1100 miles southwest of Capetown, South Africa. Argus
consisted of three very high altitude test shots of
the W-25 warhead to investigate the effects of nuclear explosions outside of
the atmosphere - how the charged particles and
radioactive isotopes released would interact with the Earth's magnetic field
which could potentially interfere with radar
tracking, communications, and the electronics of satellites and ballistic
In a way, these tests could be considered a logical extension of the high
altitude shots conducted within the atmosphere in
Hardtack I which detonated warheads at 85,250 feet (a 1.7 Kt W-25 in the Yucca
shot), 141,000 feet (a 3.8 Mt W-39 in
the Orange shot), and 252,000 feet (also a 3.8 Mt W-39 in the Teak shot).
Argus pushed nuclear tests still higher with effects
tests at 100 miles (528,000 feet), 182 miles (961,000 feet), and 466 miles
The motivation for this secret series was a theory developed by the brilliant
but eccentric physicist Nicholas Christofilos at
Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (LRL). He had predicted that military
significant effects would be produced by injecting
charged particles from nuclear explosions into near space to create artificial
Van Allen belts. This series sought to prove (or
disprove) his theory by actually creating such a belt. Operation Argus has
been termed the "world's largest scientifc
experiment" encompassing as it did the space surrounding the entire Earth. The
tests essentially confirmed his predictions.
Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to
Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules-and still there are some misfits who insist
that there is no such thing as progress
There was also the non-clandestine 1.4 megaton Starfish Prime shot
at 248 mile altitude over Johnston Island on 9 July 1962.
In addition, the Soviets conducted a high-altitude nuclear test on 6
September 1961 at Sary Shagan in connection with ABM development. I don't
know the yield or height of burst, however.
Actually, Argus (summer 1958) was a relatively minor test series, although
it's noteworthy because it did the first in-space tests and because it was
done in such secrecy. The Argus warheads were very small. The more
significant in-space tests were Starfish in July 1962, and three Russian
in-space tests later that year.
> The motivation for this secret series was a theory developed by the brilliant
>but eccentric physicist Nicholas Christofilos at
>Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (LRL).
Incorrect -- Christofilos was at Livermore.
>He had predicted that military
>significant effects would be produced by injecting
> charged particles from nuclear explosions into near space to create artificial
>Van Allen belts.
Incidentally, he also predicted the natural Van Allen belts three months
before Van Allen discovered them. The reason they are called Van Allen
belts and not Christofilos belts is that Christofilos's work was highly
The combination of a new and still agile military agency -- ARPA -- and
the perceived importance of Christofilos's idea led to amazingly fast
results. Argus ran in-space experiments on the concept, using live
nuclear weapons, less than a year after Christofilos first proposed it!
>This series sought to prove (or
> disprove) his theory by actually creating such a belt. Operation Argus has
>been termed the "world's largest scientifc
> experiment" encompassing as it did the space surrounding the entire Earth. The
>tests essentially confirmed his predictions.
Only for a very generous meaning of "essentially". What Christofilos
wanted to do was create artificial radiation belts strong enough to fry
incoming ICBM warheads. Argus did not actually try to do that, but it
explored the basic physics involved, and the results were negative: it
won't work. Oh, the electrons are trapped as Christofilos predicted, but
the discovery of the Van Allen belts had already settled *that*. Argus's
objective was to determine whether they were trapped well enough to be a
practical defence against missiles, and the answer was no.
The best reference I've found on this is Herbert F. York's "Making
Weapons, Talking Peace". York was director of Livermore when Christofilos
came up with his brainstorm, and moved to ARPA just in time to be charged
with organizing Argus.
> Oyeah. Rockets launched from the nuclear test area in the Pacific lofted
> nukes into space a couple times. The highest was something like 250 miles
> or so. These demonstrated the dramatic EMP effects of an exoatmospheric
> detonation, amoung other things. I'm not sure, but there may have been a
> shot or two over the south Atlantic as well.
Dramatic enough EMP in fact to cause major disruption to telephone exchanges,
TV transmissions etc for some time (around 8 hours?) in New Zealand,
Australia, Western Samoa, Tahiti and several other small Pacific nations.
I recently saw a documentary here called "The Atomic Bomb Movie" narrated by
William Shatner that documented these tests. From memory they used a Thor
booster and there was an incident where a Thor self-immolated on the pad. Was
there any ration leakage from this abortive test?
- Justin Wigg
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> I recently saw a documentary here called "The Atomic Bomb Movie" narrated by
> William Shatner that documented these tests. From memory they used a Thor
> booster and there was an incident where a Thor self-immolated on the pad. Was
> there any ration leakage from this abortive test?
Obviously that should have read "radiation leakage"...
I don't have my Hansen's on hand, but seem to recall something about
something like that, with the device splashing, seriously contaminating
...Either way, Discovery Channel aired this a few months back, and
it's the same tape that got hawked on the TV ads as being digitally
...IMHO, the footage reworking was rather good, and I've recommended
it to some misguided anti-nuke friends of mine as a good companion
piece to "The Atomic Cafe". One even believes the two films can be
edited together into one comprehensive film. Not a bad idea.
"An attempt was made at 2300 hours on [20 June 1962] to launch the
Thor missile for the Starfish Fishbowl program high-altitude effects
test... About 59 seconds from liftoff from the pad at Johnston Island,
a flash was observed at the tail of the missile and the motor stopped.
The range safety officer sent a destruct order to the rocket 65 seconds
after liftoff and the Thor exploded at an altitude between 30,000 and
35,000 ft. ... more debris landed in the surrounding water and on
adjacent Sand Island, where residual plutonium from the warhead was
found. There was no nuclear explosion or personnel injuries, and no
significant property damage."
U.S. Nuclear Weapons
By Chuck Hansen
pp. 86 - 87
The Fishbowl test series, which was the one involved, had seriously bad
luck with its launchers, including *four* separate Thor failures, one on
the pad. Several of them contaminated the area, one (the on-pad failure)
badly enough to cause a two-month delay in Fishbowl operations. The
Starfish in-space test was in fact Starfish Prime, the second try. The
Bluegill test (high altitude within the atmosphere) was the fourth try!