Experimentation is the essence of science. Checking fact against theory is truly what makes science great. Sometimes though either the theory hasn’t evolved far enough to predict everything, or there’s too many variables to accurately predict the result. But you really really want to see what happens, so you go and do it any way. I like to call this the “poke it with a stick and see what happens” scientific method. Such is the tale of the Starfish Prime nuclear test in 1962.

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the darkest days of the cold war, the military was testing nuclear weapons all the time. After leaving the old proofing grounds in Nevada, the military started testing them on small islands far out in the Pacific Ocean. After a while the military started itching to see what might happen if they detonated some of these nukes in space.

On July 9th, 1962 the air force strapped a 1.4 megaton nuclear bomb to a Thor rocket, blasted it into space and pressed “detonate” when it reached 250 miles above the surface. It exploded and though there was no fireball, all manner of lovely aurora formed above the Pacific Ocean.

However, 1400 miles away in Honolulu, things got pretty crazy because not only could they see the explosion but they could feel its effects. The nuclear blast released a large number of gamma rays which disrupted the local magnetic field causing an electromagnetic pulse to radiate outward. When this EMP wave hit Hawaii its energy caused huge disruptions in the electrical grid. Power lines fused, radio communication and TV signals went down and the phones went of the fritz. High up, above the atmosphere, the radiation from the explosion fried the sensitive circuits of a whole third of the low flying satellites at the time. Whoops!

That in a nutshell is exactly what I mean by the “poke it with a stick and see what happens” scientific method; detonating a large nuclear weapon miles above Earth and discovering one of its side effects was chaos across much of the Pacific’s communication grid!

Sounds like a great idea for a movie!

Oh wait, they already made it. Bonus: It’s narrated by William Shatner!

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