Plans to Destroy the Earth’s Protective Radiation Belts

By | March 4, 2014

nukeinspacestarfishprimeSince we’re coming up on the Fourth of July, and towns everywhere are preparing their better-than-ever fireworks spectaculars, we would like to offer this humbling bit of history. Back in the summer of 1962, the U.S. blew up a hydrogen bomb in outer space, some 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean. It was a weapons test, but one that created a man-made light show that has never been equaled — and hopefully never will. …

Some of the images in this video were until recently top secret. Peter Kuran of Visual Concept Entertainment collected them for his documentary Nukes In Space.

If you are wondering why anybody would deliberately detonate an H-bomb in space, the answer comes from a conversation we had with science historian James Fleming of Colby College.

“Well, I think a good entry point to the story is May 1, 1958, when James Van Allen, the space scientist, stands in front of the National Academy in Washington, D.C., and announces that they’ve just discovered something new about the planet,” he told us.

Van Allen described how the Earth is surrounded by belts of high-energy particles — mainly protons and electrons — that are held in place by the magnetic fields.

Today these radiation belts are called Van Allen belts. Now comes the surprise: While looking through the Van Allen papers at the University of Iowa to prepare a Van Allen biography, Fleming discovered “that [the] very same day after the press conference, [Van Allen] agreed with the military to get involved with a project to set off atomic bombs in the magnetosphere to see if they could disrupt it.”

Discover It, Then Blow It Up

The plan was to send rockets hundreds of miles up, higher than the Earth’s atmosphere, and then detonate nuclear weapons to see: a) If a bomb’s radiation would make it harder to see what was up there (like incoming Russian missiles!); b) If an explosion would do any damage to objects nearby; c) If the Van Allen belts would move a blast down the bands to an earthly target (Moscow! for example); and — most peculiar — d) if a man-made explosion might “alter” the natural shape of the belts.

The scientific basis for these proposals is not clear. Fleming is trying to figure out if Van Allen had any theoretical reason to suppose the military could use the Van Allen belts to attack a hostile nation. He supposes that at the height of the Cold War, the most pressing argument for a military experiment was, “if we don’t do it, the Russians will.” And, indeed, the Russians did test atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs in space.

In any case, says the science history professor, “this is the first occasion I’ve ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up.”

Code Name: Starfish Prime Americans launched their first atomic nuclear tests above the Earth’s atmosphere in 1958. Atom bombs had little effect on the magnetosphere, but the hydrogen bomb of July 9, 1962, did. Code-named “Starfish Prime” by the military, it literally created an artificial extension of the Van Allen belts that could be seen across the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand.

In Honolulu, the explosions were front page news. “N-Blast Tonight May Be Dazzling: Good View Likely,” said the Honolulu Advertiser. Hotels held what they called “Rainbow Bomb Parties” on rooftops and verandas. When the bomb burst, people told of blackouts and strange electrical malfunctions, like garage doors opening and closing on their own. But the big show was in the sky.

In what sounds like the lunatic designs of a team of mad scientists, physicists are reportedly proposing a plan to wipe out the Van Allen radiation belts.

Nevermind that we’ve really only just begun to explore and understand the Van Allen belts – those pesky bands of radiation around our planet allegedly serve ’no purpose’, and are choking up Earth’s orbit with radiation that harms people or satellite equipment that travel through them. So, the physicists’ strategy is to use giant radio transmitters on the ground to beam very low frequency (VLF) waves into the belts to break them up and clear away those tenacious protons and electrons. …

Will the destruction of one of our planet’s features such as the Van Allen radiation belts cause unforeseen and catastrophic consequences? According to the global scientific community, “the easy answer is: probably not. ” …

Many satellites and other orbiting equipment have to shut off periodically, though, to avoid damage in the belts. That’s a problem when launching equipment is often the single most expensive element of a mission; science will not abide a field that mucks with its experiments, nor even one that makes them ship expensive shielding into space. If there would really be no downside to destroying the belts, then why not just do it, if we can? Notice that there are two “ifs” in that statement. The second is the easier of the two: Can we clear the belts?

A new proposition from scientists around the globe claims that very low frequency radio waves could be used to disburse Van Allen protons in the lower atmosphere, clearing several helpful new orbital distances for use by satellites and other equipment. Radio waves have problems getting through the highly charged ionosphere, which sits between us and the Van Allen regions, but scientists are hopeful that powerful emitters could mitigate this problem. Satellite-based VLF radio emitters have also been proposed, but such devices would take too much energy for an orbital platform.

One older idea for disbursing the belts was called HiVOLT, or High Voltage Orbiting Long Tether. This would be a system of five cables, each about 100 kilometers long, used to create a magnetic field that deflects the orbit of these particles. This could hypothetically change the orbital period of the particles so they either crash into the atmosphere or careen off into space — possibly thus disbursing the belts in as little as two months.
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Studying Earth

Two regions of radiation encircle the Earth. They’re called the Van Allen belts, and they are a pair of dynamic regions of trapped radiation, separated by a void and held in place by the Earth’s magnetic field. They protect the planet from the radiation of space and the effects of solar weather.

The reptilians live safely underground and will not mind much when life on the surface is cooked by space radiation.

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