The Mystery Behind the Vela Incident of 1979
The Cold War was heating up. The Soviets and the Americans had their missiles aimed at each other while other nations were scrambling to start their own nuclear weapons programs. The world in 1979 was a scary place. So, when a mysterious double-flash was detected over the southernmost part of the Indian and Atlantic Ocean by a spy satellite on September 22 of that year, tensions within the American intelligence community were elevated.
The double-flash was an unwelcome find; it meant someone had exploded a nuclear bomb. Yet, the usual suspects, The Soviet Union and China, were not known to have test sites in this area. Neither were the French or South Africans, despite having island territories near the suspected region.
The mystery deepened after countless reconnaissance missions by the US Air Force failed to register any evidence of the type of radioactivity a nuclear bomb would release.
The mystery of the Vela Incident of 1979 was an event with no easy answers. Speculations about its cause has run the gamut; scientists, national labs, and government panels had put forward several theories such as a top secret nuclear test, meteoroids entering the atmosphere, or a possible malfunction on the Vela Hotel satellite.
To this day – after more than 30 years – its exact origin is still being debated, even after the tensions of the cold war years have dissipated. This incident has become one of the Cold War’s greatest mysteries.
The Satellite’s Mission
In understanding how the incident occurred, one has to look at the mission of the satellite that recorded it. Launched on May 23, 1969, the Vela Hotel satellite was one of two satellites used for Project Vela. It was designed to detect atmospheric nuclear testing throughout the world. It collected data and sent the readings to a base in the United States where it was interpreted by a member of an intelligence agency. One of its components, a Bhangmeter, was a type of photometer intended to detect atmospheric nuclear detonation. This particular tool would prove to be the one under scrutiny.
Vela Hotel (also known as Vela 6911) was not just used to detect an explosion. Its purpose was to ensure that all the nuclear and non-nuclear states that signed 1963’s Partial Limited Test Ban Treaty were adhering or reducing testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, underwater, or in outer space.
By the late '60s, most of these nations (United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union) had moved their tests to underground facilities. Only France and China continued to do atmospheric testing throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. France continued until 1974 and China until 1980.
Another goal of the satellite was to gauge a few “non-declared nuclear” nations. During this period, several nations were suspected of starting a nuclear weapons program or in possession of a nuclear bomb. Israel, India, and South Africa were the suspect nations.
While the satellite was equipped with state-of-the-art detection equipment, Vela Hotel had several faulty systems. For one thing, the satellite had been orbiting the Earth for more than 10 years and had already gone two years beyond its so-called design lifetime (Matt’s Today in History.com, 2011). Another problem was noted; it had a failed electromagnetic pulse sensor and a faulty recording memory. According to an entry in Wikipedia, that fault cleared itself by March 1978.
Due to the location of the suspected double-flash, two nations were suspected of conducting the supposed test. It occurred between The French possession of Crozet Islands and South Africa’s Prince Edward Islands. The Crozet Islands were small and sparsely inhabited and fairly isolated from other countries. It would have been an ideal place to do atmospheric nuclear tests. However, France had moved toward underground testing by this time.
South Africa and Israel became the other culprits. According to an article edited by Jeffery.
...wind pattern studies confirmed that fallout from an explosion in the suspected region could reach southwestern Australia.
Richelson for the National Security Archive website, South Africa had been preparing for a nuclear test in August 1977 before Soviet and US satellites detected it. Also, there had been reports – according to the article – that there was an Israeli-South African cooperation (much of this was speculated and obscure at best). Through diplomatic pressures from the U.S and Soviets, South Africa abandoned their program.
Another plausible, but unlikely, suspect was India. The country supposedly conducted a nuclear test in 1974. However, India had signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty and had complied with it by exploding their bomb underground (Eventually, in the 1990s, India and its rival Pakistan would officially declare they had nuclear bombs).
Another country mentioned as a possible culprit was Taiwan. This particular claim came from a video segment from How Stuff Works. Not much is given as to why Taiwan would be involved.
Where’s the Radiation?
The US wasn’t going to sit by and speculate if South Africa had nukes. Several US Air Force WC-135B surveillance aircraft flew over the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic region soon after the double-flash was reported. The planes were equipped to detect the presence of radioactive dust; however, the planes failed to detect any signs of nuclear radiation.
The mystery of the flash deepened. In Southeastern Australia, low levels of iodine-131 were detected in thyroid glands of sheep. Iodine-131 is a short-life product of nuclear fission released soon after a detonation. According to Frank Barnaby, writer of the book The Invisible Bomb, wind pattern studies confirmed that fallout from an explosion in the suspected region could reach southwestern Australia.
Another report gave credence to a covert nuclear detonation theory. At the Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory and Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico, the researchers at the facility reported detecting “anomalous Ionospheric waves during the morning of September 22, 1979, which moved from southeast to northwest, an event which had not been observed previously by the scientists (Wikipedia, 2011). “
An Act of Nature or Man-Made
In 1980, A Presidential panel commissioned by Frank Press – Science Advisor to President Jimmy Carter and chairman of the Office of Science and Technology - came to the conclusion that the double-flash was not caused by a nuclear detonation. The data collected from the satellite, including those recorded by the Bhangmeter, were either inconclusive or in dispute. The council concluded that the satellite may have been hit by a meteoroid.
The panel’s finding came under fire, not just by independent labs but by governmental groups. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was one of these groups who believed that the data supported the detection for a nuclear detonation.
Since then, several speculations have been made. While there are those in the intelligence community who state that it was either a nuclear explosion or a meteoroid, others claim that the satellite may have detected the presence of lightning, meteor showers, or had a malfunction.
In the long run, the flashes didn’t turn out to be a major event. While it sent jitters throughout the intelligence community, it never led to serious military or diplomatic actions. Still, the Vela Incident is an example of how technology doesn’t always provide the clearest picture to what’s happening in the world.
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Vela Incident from How Stuff Works
© 2016 Dean Traylor