This is the night sky above Honolulu, Hawaii, on 9 July 1962, nine seconds after midnight, or so.
The light in the sky is not a dusty moon, nor the sun emerging from an eclipse. It is a 1.4 megatonne nuclear explosion (equivalent to 70 Hiroshima bombs) 400 kilometres high, and 1400 kilometres west of Hawaii (where the electromagnetic pulse from the detonation killed streetlights and other electronics). The explosion, one of several space-based nuclear tests by the US (and USSR), and dubbed “Starfish Prime“, created an artificial radiation belt in space that persisted over a year, was to kill the world’s first ever communications satellite, Telstar 1, and raised concerns in NASA over the effect on astronauts.
The bomb contained isotopic cadmium, a radioactive “tracer”, which was tracked by meteorologists to assess the rate at which polar and tropical air masses mix.
I had no idea these tests had ever occurred. I stumbled on all this a few days ago, while reading about the natural radiation belts around the Earth. I have tried, for a couple of days, to find the words to express just how insane I think it that people ever decided to do this, but don’t feel I’ve managed.