How many nuclear explosions have there been in space?

Although nuclear bombs have only been used offensively twice in history, there have been many, many nuclear explosions. More of 2,000 nuclear tests They have been carried out since the first of them on July 16, 1945, by 8 of the 9 countries that currently have nuclear capacity. But not all of them have been on the surface, underground or in the sea. USA and the Soviet Unionwhich add up to 1.769 tests between both countries, They also made some of them in the space.

These were carried out between 1958 and 1962years in which the tension of the Cold War was at the top and the Cuban missile crisis occurred. This was in 1962, the year in which the most nuclear tests have been carried out, with 178 detonations.

The nuclear explosions that have taken place at an altitude greater than 100 kilometers there have been 9. Five by the United States and four by the former USSR, which came to an end after the signing of the Partial Ban Treaty on Nuclear Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Underwater 1963. From then on, nuclear tests were underground.

Nuclear explosion at 400 kilometers altitude without the characteristic mushroom due to the absence of oxygen. US Army.

The Soviet Union's K-Project

He Project-K was a group of 5 high-altitude nuclear tests that took place between 1961 and 1962although only the first four can be classified as in space given that the last one exploded when it was 59 kilometers high.

The first two, in 1961, were detonations of relatively little power, 1.2 kilotonsand at an altitude of 150 and 300 kilometers, respectively. In the next two, K-3 and K-4 in 1962, they shot R-12 missiles with nuclear warheads 300 kilotons that detonated 290 and 150kmK-3 being the one that had the greatest effect on the ground.

K-3 took place on October 22, 1962during the Cuban missile crisis, west of the town of Jezkangan in Kazakhstan. To measure the effect of electromagnetic pulse (EMP)Russian scientists installed instrumentation along a telephone line 570km long in the area they expected to be affected by the detonation.

The monitored telephone line was divided into sections of 40 to 80 kilometers in length, separated by repeaters. Each subline was protected by fuses and surge protectors. The EMP from K-3 caused all the fuses would blow and all the surge protectors would activate in all sections of the 570 km telephone line. The electromagnetic pulse also caused the destruction of the Karaganda power plantand paralyzed 1,000 km of power cables underground between Astana (then called Aqmola) and Almaty.

There were also problems with the ceramic insulators of the overhead power lines. In 2010, a technical report written for a US government laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, stated: “Power line insulators were damaged, causing the line to short circuit and some lines broke off from the poles and fell to the ground“.

The damage caused by the EMP was greater with K-3 than in any of the space detonations carried out by the United States because the test was carried out over a populated area and in a place where the Earth's magnetic field was greatest.

The United States' Argus and Fishbowl operations

Starfish Prime detonation photographed from an airplane.
Starfish Prime detonation photographed from an airplane.US Army.

The United States carried out nuclear tests at a height of more than 100 kilometers in 1958 and in 1962. In 1958, the program Argus detonated three, one of them being Argus-IIIthe nuclear explosion carried out at the highest altitude, at 540 kilometers over the South Atlantic Ocean and with a power of 1.2 kilotons. Her predecessors, Argus I and II, were also 1.2 kt and detonated over the South Atlantic. All three Argus nuclear warheads were launched with missiles X-17A.

The operation fishbowlin 1962, was a part of the program Dominic focused on high-altitude nuclear explosions, although above 100 km they only reached Checkmate, 147 km, and Starfish Prime, 400 km.

Starfish Prime is the second nuclear detonation carried out at a higher altitude and also the most powerful with 1.4 megatons (1,400 kilotons or 1.4 million tons of TNT). Like Checkmate, which did not reach 20 kt, it exploded over the Johnston Atollan uninhabited island northwest of Hawaii, 1,500 kilometers away, but the effects of the test were observed around the equator.

It was launched with a missile thor and “the large amount of energy released at such high altitude by the detonation caused widespread auroras throughout the Pacific“, visible from thousands of miles away, according to a 1982 Department of Defense report.

The explosion completely disabled at least 6 satellites, including a British one called Ariel and another Soviet, when they were hit by radioactive particles. The Hawaii's radio systems and power grid They were temporarily out of service and the debris left the satellites in their wake malfunctioning “along the lines of the old Saturday morning routine,” according to the 1982 report.

Starfish Prime, like K-3, caused a much larger EMP than expected, so much so that it escaped the measurement scale of the instruments, which made it difficult to obtain precise data. He was also noticed by residents of Hawaii where he stopped more than 300 streetlights from operating, set off numerous burglar alarms, and damaged the infrastructure of a telephone company cutting off communications between Kauai and the rest of the Hawaiian Islands. The explosion also created an artificial radiation belt on the surface that took months to disappear.