What happens when a nuclear bomb is triggered in space?

Russia threatens to return to nuclear testing in space.

Cindy Fernandez 06/17/2024 18:00 9 min

On Earth, a nuclear explosion follows a well-documented catastrophic chronology. First, a blinding fireball, hotter than the Sun, vaporizes everything in its radius, leaving only ash and debris. Second, a brutal shock wave, like an air tsunami, flattens buildings, uproots trees, and hurls objects miles away.

Finally, the mushroom cloud, a symbol of nuclear horror, rises into the sky, loaded with deadly radioactive material. This invisible rain falls on the earth, poisoning everything it touches, condemning life to a slow death.

In space, this chronology is quite different. The apocalypse is quite silent, but no less lethal for that reason. Instead of a shock wave that destroys everything in its pathunleashes its fury in the form of electromagnetic radiation, an invisible wave that travels at the speed of light.

Hiroshima explosion
Characteristic mushroom of nuclear explosions on land

Victoria Samson, chief director of space security and stability at Secure World Foundationdescribes it in an interview with Scientific American as a four-stage process:

  1. Blinding flash: a burst of intense light that instantly renders any satellite within its visual range useless. The radiation hits its electronic components, rendering them inoperable.
  2. Electromagnetic pulse (EMP): a devastating domino effect. X-rays from the explosion collide with atoms in the upper atmosphere, releasing electrons that, along with other charged particles, race along Earth’s magnetic field lines. This massive electrical current generates an electromagnetic pulse that can damage or destroy electronic devices across a wide swath of the planet, both on the ground and in orbit.
  3. Auroras: The spectacular dance of auroras seen after a space explosion is only part of the story. This light display is caused by accelerated electrons from the EMP colliding with the atmosphere.
  4. Radiation belt surrounding the Earth: the least visible but potentially most devastating, the one that leaves a legacy of death that lasts over time. The nuclear explosion creates an artificial Van Allen belt, a ring of charged particles that is trapped in Earth’s orbit by its magnetic field. These high-energy particles, released by the explosion, represent a constant threat to any satellite that dares to enter its area of ​​influence.

And depending on the location and intensity of an explosion, People on the International Space Station (ISS), as well as China’s Tiangong habitat, could be in danger. An EMP would disable critical electronic systems at these orbital outposts, leaving their crews ill-equipped to navigate through a minefield of dead and drifting satellites.

Discover the surprising marine sanctuary that arose by accident after nuclear bomb tests

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But how sure are specialists that these are the consequences of a nuclear explosion in space? A lot, because It already happened 6 decades ago and the consequences were alarming.

Starfish Prime

At 11 pm on July 8, 1962, A blinding flash illuminated the Hawaiian sky. A few minutes later, the auroras covered the sky, first in yellow and greenish tones, then a disturbing deep red.

The United States had just detonated, about 400 km from the Earth’s surface, a thermonuclear bomb 100 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It was launched by a missile from Johnston Atoll, an unincorporated US territory between the Marshall Islands and Hawaii, and detonated at an altitude similar to where most modern satellites are today.

Hawaii starfish
Hawaii sky illuminated during the Starfish Prime nuclear test in 1962

This operation, called Starfish Prime, was not the first or last time the United States or the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons in space. There were more than a dozen tests between 1958 and 1962, but this was the most shocking.

The explosion generated a surge of energy over the Pacific Ocean that knocked out about 300 streetlights on the island of Oahu and destroyed or damaged about a third of the two dozen satellites which were then in orbit. The planes experienced electrical problems and radio connections were lost.

“At 09:00 GMT a bright white flash emerged through the clouds, rapidly changing to a green ball of irradiation spreading across the clear sky. Large white expanses emerged from its surface, resembling cirrostratus clouds, which rose at 40 degrees above the horizon in captivating arcs that turned downward towards the poles and disappeared in seconds, being replaced by spectacular concentric cirrus clouds, like rings. They moved outward from the center of the explosion at enormous initial speed, finally stopping when the outer ring reached 50 degrees in height. They did not disappear, but persisted in a state of frozen calm. All this happened, I would judge, within the space of 45 seconds.

The greenish light began to turn purple and began to fade in the center of the explosion, a bright red glow began to develop on the horizon in a direction of 50 degrees northeast and simultaneously 50 degrees southeast and upward, until the sky to the east was a fiery red semicircle extending 100 degrees from north to south and to the middle of the zenith, which eclipsed some of the less bright stars. This situation, interspersed with enormous white rainbows, persisted for no less than seven minutes.”
Excerpt from the document “A ‘Quick Look’ at the Technical Results of Starfish Prime”, pages 19-21

Starfish’s detonation soon became a concern. Scientists were not sure when everything would return to normal. The Van Allen belt was still altered, this affected ships in space and those about to be launched. He even feared the Apollo mission, and it was calculated that all astronauts would absorb an extra dose of radiation of between 20 and 16 rad (measurement of absorbed radiation).

The consequences of these tests were so unexpected that shortly after, In 1963, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to end atomic testing in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater. To compromise, the Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1967, whose full name is Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which prohibits states parties to the treaty the placement of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the Earth’s orbit, their installation on the moon or any other celestial body.

News reference:

https://archive.ph/h7jmx

 
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