Thinking Aloud: American Fireworks, Cold-War Style

July 4, 2015 by Darius 

If you’re American, there’s a good chance you’ll see some fireworks this weekend as part of Independence Day celebrations.  Half a century ago, though, the US military put on a fireworks display that will probably never be surpassed.

On July 9, 1962, a Thor missile flew 250 miles into the air from a South Pacific Island.  The missile was carrying a thermonuclear warhead with an explosive power equivalent to 1.4 million tons of TNT.  The mission, awesomely codenamed Starfish Prime, was designed to test the effects of nuclear weapons detonated in the upper atmosphere.

The results were stunning, rather literally.  The radiation caused by the nuclear explosion knocked out several satellites in low orbit.  The electromagnetic pulse accompanying the blast knocked out hundreds of streetlights in Hawaii 900 miles away from the explosion.  The flash of the explosion burned through heavy cloud cover and dominated half the sky more than 1400 miles away.  For days afterward, residents of Pacific islands observed an Aurora Borealis-like glow in the sky, the product of recurring debris in the upper atmosphere.

That’s fireworks.

 

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