Sorry to interrupt...this will only take a moment.
This site is an independent reader-supported project.
Because you have viewed at least a few articles now...
Can you give a small donation to keep us online?
We can give you e-books and audiobooks and stuff.
This site is an independent reader-supported project.
The cost of keeping it running are considerable.
If you can spare a few dollars it would help us enormously.
We can give you e-books and audiobooks and stuff.
Experimental Feature

Select 'Atmospheric Audio' from the Audio menu to add subtle background audio to certain portions of the article.

Starfish Prime

Article #5 • Written by Jason Bellows

▼ Scroll to Continue ▼

On the night of 9 July 1962 a number of beach front hotels in Honolulu, Hawaii were throwing “rainbow bomb” parties; gathering sky gazers to the rooftops to enjoys a sight rarely seen in the South Pacific: the aurora.

At the time they didn’t have the means to detect and track a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection), but the technology was impending, due in part to the events that were transpiring. This time instead of forecasting an aurora that might occur naturally, they were creating one. Specifically, DASA (Defense Atomic Support Agency) and the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) were creating the aurora by means of a suborbital nuclear detonation.

The test was codenamed Starfish Prime, and was part of Operation Dominic, a series of tests designed to test the abilities of nuclear weapons in space.

The W49 thermonuclear warhead was launched on the nose of a Thor rocket. The warhead detonated 248.5 miles above Johnston Island—an altitude that is considered outer space. The yield of the blast was 1.5 Megatons, but there was no fireball. There is no air at that altitude to ignite. That is not to say, however, that there were no visual effects.

Quoting Cecil R. Coale, PhD , who observed the flash from Canton Island:

Then a brilliant white flash erased the darkness like a photoflash. Then the entire sky turned light green for about a second. In several more seconds, a deep red aurora, several moon diameters in size, formed where the blast had been. A white plasma jet came slowly out of the top of the red aurora (over Johnston Island) and painted a white stripe across the sky from north to south in about one minute. A deep red aurora appeared over Samoa at the south end of the white plasma jet. This visual display lasted for perhaps ten minutes before slowly fading. There was no sound at all.

As spectacular as the sight was, it was the invisible features of the blast that were the most impressive. Not only was the sky illuminated, but in Hawaii alone 300 street lights failed, TV and radios malfunctioned, burglar alarms went off, and several power lines fused. In low Earth orbit 3 satellites were immediately disabled, and some artificial radiation bands were created that eventually disabled 1/3 of the low orbit satellites in orbit.

Obviously the aurora effect was predicted, but as is expected in government jobs, most of the rest came as a surprise—including the fact that after the explosion they realized that they had no rockets or equipment to follow the bomb and study the aftereffects of the test.

Article written by Jason Bellows, published on 08 September 2005. Jason is a contributing editor for

Edited by Alan Bellows.

For more science, history, and psychology, follow us:

More Information
Related Articles

Posted 15 July 2006 at 12:51 pm

I imagine this would be the first instance of devices falling victim to EMP... I'm surprised they didn't predict that effect before.

Posted 08 August 2006 at 10:40 pm

I was a Morse Intercepter in Asmara, Eritrea at the time of the event. The event shut down all high frequency communications. The only signal we could get was a US Navy transmitter 5 miles away. The guys got a nice afternoon of volleyball and sunbathing until the ionosphere went back to somewhat normal.

Posted 30 November 2006 at 05:35 pm

Thats some crazy stuff, doesn't suprise me that the gvt was to inept to follow up though...

Posted 28 March 2007 at 01:18 am

They should do this again! It'd be cool!

Posted 22 September 2007 at 08:44 pm

i know it's been two years since the original post date.
still, i have to agree with kgy121. they should do it again.

because it would be cool.

Ed Graham
Posted 10 October 2007 at 11:21 am

It would be great to see it again. I was on a troop ship returning from a stint in Korea. The area had been cleared of commercial shipping, but our little transport was chugging along - - directly under the blast. It was my job on the ship to tune in radio stations for the troops from where ever I could find them. That evening I was listening to KPOI in Hawaii and did a count down on the ship's PA. 3-2-1 Unbelievable. The description above was accurate. I couldn't believe that the entire sky lit up. In fact, I was a little worried that something had gone wrong when the north-south band of white lit up and wouldn't go away. it was obviously following the Earth's magnetic field.

I'll never forget it.

Posted 06 July 2008 at 10:22 pm

I think they are trying to do this again:

It is called "HAARP". You can do a search. The magnetic field bends light. This nuclear device disturbed the ionoshere / magnetoshpere. This is the purpose of HAARP, the U.S. military's new weapon.

Posted 11 July 2008 at 07:34 am

Thanks for the information. The official HAARP site seems like a benign project that they are spending way too much money on, but the military applications discussed on other sites are frightening.

Wonder when we will stop viewing the ability to kill as a positive thing?


Posted 31 July 2008 at 03:23 pm

edraven said:
Wonder when we will stop viewing the ability to kill as a positive thing?

It's not the ability to kill that people seek.
Its the ability to get what they want.
They have found that you will usually do what they want if otherwise they will die. But ideally, you don't have to kill them. Just pass a law, and threaten to confiscate their property or imprison them.
But that doesn't work with other countries. Why not? Because [i]they[/i] won't do what you want unless you threaten to kill them.
But it all boils down to, "Have it your way."

Howard Robard Hughes IIV
Posted 02 June 2009 at 01:45 am

Those so called tests went on for about four years and took down about 30% of all satellites-it was WWIII in near space before the space war treaties.CUBA/RUSSIA vs the hughes`s USA/ JAPAN satellite-NET.Harrp system is fully fuctional but is not a nuclear system.They were going to use the system to transport natural gas but it was deemed as too unsafe.I have seen and interacted within that system which is a warfare classifed project still-there are three of those 48 tower systems that I know of in the world.

Howard Robard Hughes IIV
Posted 02 June 2009 at 01:53 am

At least it never went ground nulcear warfare which could have killed millions.ATOMIC CITY show down with Howard Hughes JR fighting the AEC to slow the atomic count down as TOM SLICK had done was where our DOD learned how to hear Howard`s wisdom which they still adhear to the day and least on nuclear warfares.It took over ten years for all that radition to clear from starfish and from nevada to canada cancer rates have been found to be higher due to the ATOMIC CITY and elvis radioactive singer-JOKE JOKE but thats what they called him untill people started dieing from those public viewed tests

Add Your Comment

Note: Your email address will not be published, shared, spammed, or otherwise mishandled. Anonymous comments are more likely to be held for moderation. You can optionally register or login.

You may use basic formatting HTML such as <i>, <b>, and <blockquote>.