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The Vela Incident and Proliferation

2 Jan

Nuclear history is chock full of the strange, the never-quite-adequately explained, and the conspiratorial.(1) A fascinating example of this is the September 1979 ‘Vela Incident.’ This is kind of vaguely related to my thesis work, as it impinges on nuclear proliferation (kind of.)

The Velas were a series of U.S. satellites designed to detect clandestine nuclear testing. They used what are known as ‘bhangmeters’ (plus a bunch of other uber-scientific doohickeys) to pick up the unique ‘double flash’ given off by a nuclear explosion. The satellite in question, Vela 6911, was over ten years old in September 1979. On the 22nd, it picked up a double flash in the South Atlantic, far, far away from any land (apart from the remote, French-owned Kerguelen Islands.) Heads were scratched on a global scale, committees were convened, much sweat poured forth.(2)

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