Operation Fishbowl in 1962 detonated bombs in space to study high-yield explosions. Despite no atmosphere, the explosions produced visible light and lasting radioactive effects, influencing the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty's eventual signing.
Unbelievable Video Shows Operation Fishbowl Nuclear Bomb Exploding In Space
If you've seen Oppenheimer, you probably have a good idea of what a bomb explosion on Earth looks like. But what happens if the weapon is sent into space?
Given that space is essentially just miles and miles of nothingness sprinkled with some stars and planets that don't pose a threat, it may seem weird to detonate a bomb there.
But we do a lot of things as humans in the name of science, and in 1962 it meant sending rockets into space to detonate bombs.
In an effort to assess the destructive mechanisms and effects of high-yield explosions, the US military fired the weapons as part of Operation Fishbowl.
The launch of the rockets from Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean, north of the equator, was part of an operation that got underway in reaction to the Soviet Union's pronouncement that nuclear testing would be banned for three years.
The Nevada National Security Site posted a film from Operation Fishbowl online.
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There were three tests conducted as part of the operation: Bluegill, Urraca, and Starfish.
In the video, a rocket is seen taking off from Johnston Island before its bomb detonates with an enormous blaze of light.
NASA claims that because space lacks an atmosphere, any explosion would completely dissipate and there wouldn't be any air for the bomb to heat up in.
However, NASA also points out that radioactive radiation won't experience any force reduction in space, thus the range of meaningful dosages would be considerably wider than it would be at sea level, even though the impacts would be minimized in that sense.
500 times as strong as the bomb that exploded in Hiroshima, the Starfish test's explosion employed a 1.4-megaton weapon.
The International Space Station orbits at a height of roughly 250 miles, so it blew up there, but that didn't make it any less visible from Earth.
Greg Spriggs, who witnessed the test with his family, provided the following account to National Geographic: “[My dad] was trying to figure out which direction to look. He thought there was going to be this little flicker, so he wanted to make sure everybody was going to see it.”
"When that nuclear weapon went off, the whole sky lit up in every direction. It looked like noon."
The blast's effects persisted for up to 15 minutes after it occurred, causing an artificial aurora that could be seen as far away as New Zealand.
The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by the US, the UK, and the former USSR just a year after the test.
The tests provided unprecedented insights into the behavior of nuclear explosions beyond Earth's atmosphere.
While space's lack of atmosphere led to the rapid dissipation of explosions, the lingering effects of radioactive radiation presented new challenges.
The awe-inspiring visual displays resulting from the tests not only expanded our scientific knowledge but also contributed to international efforts to control nuclear weapons testing.
Operation Fishbowl remains a testament to humanity's quest for knowledge and our unyielding desire to explore the mysteries of the cosmos.