On September 22, 1979 an aging American spy satellite detected a powerful flash of light that was so deep in the southern oceans that it was unclear if the flash was in the South Atlantic or the Indian ocean. National Security authorities soon notified President Jimmy Carter that there had been a nuclear test. But had there really been one? The issue mattered because at the heart of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treat of 1963 was the belief that the United States (and the Soviet Union) could detect clandestine explosions. The President convened a special task force to determine what the satellite had observed. In the end, the committee decided that the flash most likely resulted from a micro-meteorite hitting the satellite, rather than an event on earth. Many defense observers with considerable expertise held a different view. The debate has continued over three decades, with the consensus shifting as first one piece of new evidence comes forward, only to be countered by the next revelation. So what exactly happened deep over the southern oceans?
Even at the time there was evidence both for and against the nuclear blast hypothesis. On the one hand, U.S. air-force planes flew through the skies near the blast zone twenty-five times and failed to detect any radiation, which decreased the likelihood that it was a nuclear event. On the other, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico detected a strange ionospheric wave around the time of the Vela explosion. A burst of auroral light also flashed over an Antarctic base moments after the satellite detected the burst.
There were other options for what might have happened. One possibility was that it was a lightening super-bolt, one of the strangest phenomenon in nature. Although these events rarely take place over land, in April 1978 what presumably was a super-bolt struck a farm on Bell Island, Newfoundland, where it caused impressive damage as this YouTube clip describes (while the sound in the footage isn’t great, the images of the destruction, and the description of strange phenomenon such as ball lightening, are interesting). The blast was so loud it was heard 65 kilometers away. Curious American scientists John Warren and Robert Freyman investigated the blast, to better understand the phenomenon, which sparked years of speculation that the U.S. had been testing an electro-magnetic pulse weapon, which somehow targeted a small island in Atlantic Canada. But the super-bolt is a real phenomenon, and a possible explanation for both the Bell Island Boom, as well as the Vela Incident.
Another possibility was that it an extraterrestrial object entered the earth’s atmosphere, as had happened in Tunguska, Russia in 1908, when the Siberian forest was leveled by an explosion with a force a thousand times that of the Hiroshima bomb. The most likely cause for this disaster was a comet or meteor strike, with the explosion taking place in the air, so that no pieces remained for scientists to observe (for an excellent documentary on the event, see here). Such incidents must take place periodically. Perhaps the Vela satellite captured one.
But how can we come to a firmer decision? In 1994 a Soviet spy in South Africa said that the flash was the result of a joint Israeli-South African test. This assertion seemed plausible, because South Africa had a nuclear program in the 1970s, and Israel had nuclear weaponry, but could benefit from a secure test site. There was evidence that the two powers cooperated in nuclear affairs. In April 1997 the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz cited a minister in the South African government, who said that the event was definitely a nuclear test. This argument was also made by Seymour Hersh, a famous investigative journalist, in 1991. In July 2011, Leonard Weiss (a former Senate Committee Staff director) revealed information suggesting that the Carter administration covered up an Israeli nuclear test. This was the first new information regarding the Vela Incident in a long time. So does this suggest that this was this explosion was a clandestine Israeli nuclear test, which the U.S. chose to conceal? Or does this mean that the U.S. lacks the ability to enforce the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, because it can’t detect violations?
Maybe. But in the end, the events in 1979 remain mysterious, and there is no certainty that there ever was a nuclear test. Only one of two sensors on the satellite registered the event (for an image of the satellite, see here). The South African government has since revealed much information about its nuclear activities, but there has been no mention about the Vela explosion. Perhaps this serves as a reminder that given the immensity of our planet, and in particular its oceans, there is still much that we don’t know, and many international mysteries remain. I’ll be exploring this theme in an upcoming post. In the meantime, you might want to watch this strangely hypnotic art work by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto, which maps every nuclear explosion since 1945. As others note, 1962 was a big year.
Update: Interested in the mysterious? You could read my new book Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and History, which examines an Indigenous tradition regarding an evil spirit. In Canada, you can now purchase the paperback version from my publisher Heritage House, or Amazon.ca here. The print version of the book is forthcoming in the United States and Europe in April 2015. But it is already available in Kindle in the United States and Canada, as well as other formats such as Google Play Books, Nook, Kobo and iBooks.