Recently declassified NASA documents report Cold War-era A-test screwed things up way more than we knew

1950s/’60s atomic testing created artificial radiation belts that created artificial auroras near the equator, disrupted satellites, affecting power grids on Earth


By Brian Santo, contributing writer

Atmospheric atomic tests during the Cold War were incredibly disruptive to space weather, but much of the data collected at the time was only recently declassified. New analyses of this data are now helping guide an understanding of how to operate electrical and electronic systems — everything from the power grid to satellites — during unusual space weather, such as changing magnetic conditions and varying types and levels of radioactivity.

The release of the study has also brought attention to previously unpublicized and bizarre side effects of the use of VLF (very-low-frequency) radio waves.

First, the A-bomb tests: From 1958 to 1962, the U.S. and the USSR detonated a series of bombs in the atmosphere, from 16 to 250 miles above.

“These explosions created artificial radiation belts near Earth that resulted in major damages to several satellites,” according to the summary of a new analysis of the phenomena called “Anthropogenic Space Weather” published in Space Science Reviews. “Another, unexpected impact of the high-altitude nuclear tests was the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that can have devastating effects over a large geographic area (as large as the continental United States).”

Many of the results were so obvious that they simply couldn’t be hidden or denied. In the Starfish series of experiments in 1962, one detonation created an EMP that knocked out six satellites, disrupted commercial communications systems in Hawaii, and even blew out street lamps in the new state. It also led to an artificially-created aurora — near the equator, which such things rarely occur.

It wasn’t well-known until much later, but that explosion was eventually revealed to have created a new radiation belt around Earth that lingered for months.

Researchers are convinced that what we can learn about man-made space weather could help us learn about natural space weather, given that many of the effects are the same as, or are very similar to, natural phenomena. For instance, the radiation belts that were trapped in our atmosphere briefly in 1962 might be able tell us something about the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the earth, as NASA Goddard suggests in a video timed for release with the study.

NASA has a series of missions likely to profit from analyses of those atmospheric A-bomb tests, including the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) project, which is studying magnetic reconnection, the Van Allen Probes mission, and Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS), which is studying Earth’s magnetosphere and the causes of space weather.

The researchers note that there are a number of other anthropogenic impacts on the space environment they are studying that include chemical release experiments (no, not chemtrails), high-frequency wave heating of the ionosphere (no, not death beams), and the interaction of VLF waves with the radiation belts.

This mention has brought attention to what’s going on with VLF radiation; a prominent use of VLF is for submarine communications. Researchers working with the Van Allen Probes have announced that, under certain conditions, “radio communication signals in the VLF frequency range can, in fact, affect the properties of the high-energy radiation environment around the earth,” according to Phil Erickson, assistant director at the MIT Haystack Observatory, Westford, Massachusetts.

VLFs interact with particles in space, creating a barrier against the natural particle radiation in space. We’ve inadvertently created what appears to be a protective “bubble” around the planet. This finding was included in “Anthropogenic Space Weather.”

While it’s nice to know that something seemingly went right for a change, one of the best things about the study is being reminded that it’s been 55 years and counting since the last time anyone has felt the need to blow up an atomic bomb in our atmosphere.