J1.2 Predicting and Modifying Space Weather: Weaponizing the Magnetosphere in the Cold War

Tuesday, 8 January 2013: 11:30 AM
Room 16B (Austin Convention Center)
James Rodger Fleming, Colby College, Waterville, ME

Space weather has a cosmic history dating to the first ionized particle and the first magnetic field; a very long history of observations starting with Chinese aurora sightings about 2,000 BCE; and a more recent history of science and technology, beginning in the early years of the twentieth century, comprising electromagnetic discovery of higher and higher levels from the ionosphere upwards by such notables as Oliver Heavyside, Kristian Birkeland, Edward Appleton, Sydney Chapman, and Hannes Alfven (Space Weather Timeline). Space Weather also has a very recent, more familiar, post-Cold War history of publicly disseminated operational reports regarding how conditions in space affect Earth and its technological systems (NRC 1997). But there are other eras and other stories to be told.

This presentation examines top-secret military experiments conducted by US and Soviet cold warriors between 1958 and 1962 aimed at disrupting the magnetosphere using nuclear weapons. So-called “space bombs” were heavy-handed and not-to-be-repeated interventions aimed at weaponizing outer space. Nevertheless, the detonations themselves, the damage they caused to land- and space-based infrastructure, and the life spans of their radioactive debris led to new scientific understanding of Earth's geomagnetic environment.

I know of no more dramatic historical example of the discovery of a new phenomenon (the Van Allen Belts) followed by immediate attempts to disrupt it. Of course intervention is often part of scientific practice, but exploding nuclear weapons in the magnetosphere constituted a purposeful and quite reckless intervention in a hitherto unknown and poorly understood global feature. This story is relevant today because nuclear explosions in space by the US and the Soviet Union constituted some of the earliest attempts at geo-engineering, or intentional human intervention in planetary-scale processes.

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