First and largest nuclear detonation in space played a role
On November 15, Russia fired an anti-satellite missile at one of its old satellites. When hit, the satellite shattered into hundreds of thousands of pieces, of which only 1,500 or so are trackable. The only international treaty governing humanity’s activities in outer space turns 55 this month. It was sparked in part by the first test of a nuclear weapon in space.
From 1951 through 1966, the US conducted more than 475 nuclear weapons tests. During the same period, the Soviet Union conducted more than 250 tests. In 1962 alone, they conducted 174, more than twice the annual average during the Cold War. One US test, called Starfish Prime, drew worldwide attention — and condemnation — because it was not only the first nuclear detonation in space but also the largest.
Around 11 pm local time on July 8, 1962, (July 9 in the continental US), the US launched a Thor rocket from Johnston Atoll, about 900 miles west-southwest of Hawaii. It reached some 660 miles and when it descended to 250 miles just more than 13 minutes after launch, a 1.4-megaton hydrogen bomb exploded above the Pacific Ocean. (Outer space is commonly defined to begin 62 miles above the Earth.) The warhead was 100 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima 17 years before.
The explosion produced a dramatic light show. According to a 1983 report by the Defense Nuclear Agency, the energy it released “caused widespread auroras” throughout the Pacific, some lasting up to 15 15 minutes. They were seen on both sides of the equator. “In Honolulu,” the report says, “an overcast, nighttime sky turned into day for about 6 minutes.” Almost as an aside, the description concluded with, “The Earth’s geomagnetic field also was observed to respond to the burst.”
That was an understatement as scientists were surprised by the effects. For example, according to a 2000 report on anti-satellite weapons by the US Air Force Academy:
The test produced a visual extravaganza as well as several unintended effects that reverberated in Washington. The nuclear blast knocked out electrical systems throughout Hawaii — 715 miles away. More importantly, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects from the blast seriously damaged the solar panels of three orbiting satellites even though they were not in the line-of-sight of the nuclear detonation. The radiation effects lingered in the Earth’s magnetic fields and affected satellites that followed an orbital path through the detonation area. Electronic components were destroyed and continued exposure to radiation trapped in the Earth’s magnetic fields degraded the life of affected satellites.
According to a 2010 report by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, 24 satellites were in orbit or were launched in the weeks following Starfish Prime. At least eight suffered damage “definitely related” to the test. One was the world’s first communications satellite, Telstar. Launched one day after Starfish Prime, it relayed voice and television signals across the Atlantic. Radiation damage was noted about one month after launch and Telstar failed completely in February 1963.
Studying the effects of electromagnetic radiation was one of Starfish Prime’s objectives. Less than a decade before, James Van Allen discovered the radiation belts around the Earth that are named for him. The Van Allen belts are highly radioactive, doughnut-shaped zones of high-energy particles, mainly protons and electrons, with the Earth at the center of the doughnut hole. Originating primarily from the solar wind, the particles are captured and held by the Earth’s magnetic field.
The Starfish Prime detonation temporarily altered the shape and intensity of the lower of the two Van Allen belts. Moreover, the explosion also created an artificial radiation belt around the Earth, which is what damaged the satellites. “To our great surprise and dismay, it developed that STARFISH added significantly to the electrons in the Van Allen belts,” Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg later wrote. “This result contravened all predictions.” Scientists later determined that the high-energy electrons from the blast stayed in space into the 1970s.
Still, the US and USSR each tested two nuclear weapons in space later that year. Three of those took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The following year, the US, Great Britain, and the USSR entered the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which banned above-ground nuclear tests, “including outer space.”
Many nations objected to the high-altitude nuclear tests, and the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR raised fears about the weaponization of space. The two superpowers were engaged in another politically-charged race — the race to the Moon. One of the nations would win that race. They and other nations were concerned the winner might stake claim to the Moon. They also feared the possibility of military use of the Moon.
Prompted in part by the United Nations, negotiations in 1965 and 1966 brought about an agreement to bring some rule of law to the exploration and use of outer space. On January 27, 1967, the US, the Soviets, and Great Britain signed the “Outer Space Treaty,” which has been ratified or signed by more than 130 nations. “Outer Space Treaty” is a nickname. The treaty’s actual title is “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.”
While the UN has since adopted resolutions regarding the use of outer space and the US and other nations have passed laws on the subject, the treaty’s seventeen articles provide the framework for international space law today. The treaty is “the ‘Magna Carta’ of space law,” Michelle Hanlon, president of the National Space Society, said last year.
Among the treaty’s provisions:
- “The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries . . . and shall be the province of all mankind.”
- Outer space is “free for exploration and use by all States.” However, no nation can claim sovereignty in space, including on the Moon and other celestial bodies, by any means.
- No nation may put in orbit “any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” or install or station such weapons on celestial bodies.
- All celestial bodies shall be used “exclusively for peaceful purposes.” Military facilities, weapons testing, and military maneuvers are forbidden.
- Astronauts are “envoys of mankind,” and states must render all possible assistance in case of an accident, distress, or emergency landing.
- Each state is responsible for its activities in space, regardless of whether the government or non-governmental entities conduct them.
- Any state sending an object into space and the state from which it is launched is liable for any damage the object causes to another nation or its residents.
- Any studies or exploration in space must avoid harmful contamination and adverse changes on Earth from extraterrestrial matter.
Notably, these are broad principles, not detailed governance. Moreover, like many legal documents, it is open to interpretation. Between 1968 and 1976, the major space-faring nations agreed to three clarifying treaties. These deal with the rescue of astronauts, liability for damage caused by space objects, and providing the UN with details regarding each object launched into space.
Yet gaps remain, as highlighted by the Russian and other anti-satellite tests. The treaty clearly prohibits nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction in space. Yet it doesn’t ban conventional weapons or using ground-based weapons against objects in space. In addition, while the treaty also says the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used “exclusively for peaceful purposes,” it doesn’t mention space itself.
This year a UN working group begins studying possible legal approaches to reducing space threats and preventing an arms race in space. However, its recommendations and report won’t come until 2023 at the earliest. Until then, a 55-year-old document serves as the only guide to what we do in space.
“The Outer Space Treaty says you can’t have nuclear weapons. That’s about what it says. The rest is the wild, wild west,” Gen. John Raymond, head of the US Space Force, said in 2019.
How Winter Olympics Have Dealt With Snow Shortages
There are two essentials for staging a Winter Olympics—snow and ice. Old Man Winter can be fickle, however, and mild temperatures and a lack of snow have threatened to derail the Winter Games multiple times, particularly before the advent of climate-controlled arenas and artificial snow.
Weather challenges at the Winter Olympics have a history nearly as old as the sporting spectacle itself.
1928 St. Moritz Olympics
On Valentine’s Day in 1928, a freak blast of summer-like heat that could have melted a box of chocolates—let alone snow—struck St. Moritz, Switzerland, and wreaked havoc with the second Winter Games.
Temperatures hovered near the freezing mark when the 50-kilometer cross-country skiing race started at 8 a.m., but within an hour, a hot wind known as the föhn blew down from the Alps. The strong southerlies sent temperatures soaring to 77 degrees in the sun. The föhn, which had never arrived that early in winter, turned the cross-country event into a slushy slog and one of the slowest races in skiing history. Conditions compelled more than one-quarter of the skiers to quit, and Sweden’s Per Erik Hedlund won in a time more than an hour slower than that of the 1924 gold medalist.
Meanwhile at the outdoor speed skating oval, the ice was melting underneath the blades of the skaters in the 10,000-meter race. Each heat grew progressively slower as puddles formed on the thawing ice until organizers cancelled the race, with American Irving Jaffee in the lead.
WATCH: The First Olympics on HISTORY Vault
1932 Lake Placid Olympics
Jaffee finally achieved his Olympic dream by winning two gold medals at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, which had its own weather issues. Locals believed a heavy snowfall in early November 1931 to be a good omen. It turned out to be a tease. The Adirondack winter delivered an unprecedented lack of snow in December and January, and temperatures even topped 50 degrees on some days. For the first time in its 137-year history, the New York state weather bureau reported that the Hudson River had not frozen over.
The unusual winter weather hampered some Olympians’ training routines, but a pair of snowstorms that struck before the opening ceremony allowed organizers to breathe easier. No events had to be canceled, although mild temperatures caused some alterations. Bad ice caused four hockey games to be shifted from the outdoor rink to Lake Placid’s indoor arena. Ski jumpers competing on a 47-degree day soared above the barren countryside and splashed down in a puddle-laden patch of snow that had been trucked in from higher altitudes. The warmth also forced an adjustment in the 50-kilometer cross-country skiing course, which in spots was a mere strip of snow.
While wishes for an Adirondack blizzard were ultimately fulfilled, the snowstorm struck during the nighttime closing ceremony and left fans looking “like snow-white ghosts in the eerie half-light,” according to the official report of the third Winter Olympics.
READ MORE: Winter Olympics History
1960 Squaw Valley Olympics
The Winter Olympics returned to the United States in 1960 after Squaw Valley, California, representatives snowed the International Olympic Committee with the false claim that 35 feet of snow fell in the remote Sierra Nevada outpost every winter. With just weeks to go before the start of the Games, however, the winter had delivered California sun, but no snow.
Walt Disney, who served as pageantry chairman of the 1960 Winter Olympics and opening ceremony producer, was among the organizers concerned that Squaw Valley was anything but snow white. After hiring 10 native Paiutes to perform a ceremonial snow dance, clouds appeared—but brought only rain.
Disney next turned to meteorologist Irving Krick, who began his weather career providing long-range predictions to movie studios setting location schedules before joining the team of forecasters who advised Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to delay D-Day from the target date of June 5, 1944.
Krick boasted that not only could he forecast the weather, but he could change it as well by seeding clouds with silver iodine. When clouds appeared around Squaw Valley less than six weeks before the start of the Games, Krick fired up 20 cloud-seeding generators. Whether it was coincidence or not, days later three feet of snow fell on Squaw Valley with seven feet in the mountains.
Snow remained a concern on the morning of the opening ceremony—but this time due to too much of it. Squaw Valley awoke to a raging Sierra Nevada blizzard that snarled traffic and delayed the arrival of Vice President Richard Nixon to open the Games. The near-zero visibility meant that Americans tuning in to the live broadcast would see nothing of Disney’s production.
In a scene that could have been ripped from a Disney fairy tale, however, the snow stopped and the sun broke through just as the flag holder for Greece entered the Olympic stadium to lead the parade of athletes. As soon as the ceremony ended, the snow resumed. The press dubbed the fortuitous timing the “Miracle of Squaw Valley.”
1964 Innsbruck Olympics
Snow was once again at a premium four years later in Innsbruck, Austria. When the winter resort hosting the 1964 Winter Olympics experienced one of its longest snow droughts on record, organizers enlisted the Austrian military to save the Games.
A force of 2,500 soldiers lined the bobsled and luge courses with 20,000 ice blocks they harvested from a nearby valley. In addition, troops hauled 88 million pounds of snow, in some cases basket by basket, to alpine skiing courses where soldiers and volunteers packed down the slopes with their hands and feet.
Temperatures remained mild throughout the Winter Games. While reporters joked that the Olympic flame was a fire hazard in the drought conditions and sunbathers in swimsuits waved to cross-country skiers practicing on narrow ribbons of snow, all events were completed. After seven snowless weeks, flakes finally fell four hours after the closing ceremony, forcing flights out of the city to be grounded.
Vancouver, Sochi and Beijing Olympics
When organizers of the 2010 Winter Olympics pledged to make the Games in Vancouver, Canada, the “greenest on record,” they didn’t expect Mother Nature to deliver on their promise with springlike temperatures that brought blooming daffodils, drenching rains and no snow for nearly two months leading up to the opening ceremony.
Artificial snowmakers, which first appeared at the 1980 Winter Olympics, were powerless amid the warmest January and February on record in Vancouver. In order to stage the freestyle skiing and snowboarding competitions, organizers employed a fleet of dump trucks and even helicopters to transport snow from locations as far as 150 miles away.
Even with modern snowmaking equipment, future Winter Olympics could see past weather challenges repeat themselves if global temperatures keep rising and the Games continue to be awarded to cities that are either subtropical—such as 2014 host Sochi, Russia—or have an arid winter climate similar to 2022 host Beijing, China.
Queen Elizabeth II: 14 Key Moments in Her Reign
Queen Elizabeth II is such an institution that it’s easy to forget she wasn’t supposed to have become queen at all.
Born in 1926, Elizabeth was the daughter of King George V’s second son, and had little expectation of succeeding to the throne until her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936 to marry the divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. After the death of her father, King George VI, 25-year-old Elizabeth was called upon to assume the throne, beginning a momentous reign. On February 6, 2022, the United Kingdom kicked off celebrations for the queen’s Platinum Jubilee—marking 70 years of her service to the British Commonwealth.
Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation – June 2, 1953
Held at Westminster Abbey, Elizabeth’s coronation ceremony was the first to be broadcast live on television. Some 27 million people in the United Kingdom (out of a total population of 36 million) watched the ceremony, and 11 million more listened on the radio. Afterward, some 3 million people lined the route as the queen and her entourage made their slow procession back to Buckingham Palace.
READ MORE: Queen Elizabeth II’s Reign: Then and Now
First State Visit to West Germany – 1965
In the midst of a decade marked by social and political changes, the queen kept to a busy schedule of diplomatic duties, including a 10-day visit to the Federal Republic of Germany (or West Germany) that was the first official visit there by a British royal since 1913. Her visit marked the 20-year anniversary of the end of World War II, helping to symbolize the reconciliation between the two countries and recognize Germany’s reemergence as a power in Europe and on the world stage.
READ MORE: Queen Elizabeth II: The Real Stories Behind the Tumultuous 1960s and ’70s
Mining Disaster in Wales – 1966
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On October 21, 1966, an avalanche of mud, water and debris from a coal mine buried an elementary school in the South Wales village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Though Prince Philip arrived in Aberfan a day after the disaster, the queen herself delayed her visit for over a week, fearing her presence would distract from rescue and recovery efforts. Some of those close to Elizabeth—including her former private secretary, Lord Charteris—have said she regrets the decision not to visit Aberfan sooner.
READ MORE: How the 1966 Aberfan Mine Disaster Became Elizabeth II’s Biggest Regret
First ‘Walkabout’ – 1970
During a royal tour of Australia and New Zealand with Philip and Princess Anne in 1970, Elizabeth bucked centuries of royal tradition when she took a casual stroll to greet crowds of people in person, rather than wave to them from a protected distance. Now a regular practice for British royals both abroad and at home, the first “walkabout” in Sydney was proposed by Sir William Heseltine, an Australian who served as the queen’s private secretary and was the driving force behind a 1969 TV documentary featuring the royal family, which attracted a global audience of some 40 million people.
READ MORE: The 1969 Documentary That Tried to Humanize Queen Elizabeth II and Her Family
Silver Jubilee – 1977
On June 7, Elizabeth and Philip rode in the Gold State Coach from Buckingham Palace to St. Paul’s Cathedral to officially celebrate her 25th year on the throne. Wearing a bright pink outfit, including a hat decked out with 25 fabric bells, the queen repeated her long-ago pledge to devote her life to service, saying that “Although that vow was made in my salad days when I was green in judgement, I do not regret nor retract one word of it.”
Prince Charles’ Wedding to Lady Diana Spencer – 1981
On July 29, 1981, an estimated 750 million people in 74 countries around the world tuned in to watch Prince Charles, Elizabeth’s eldest son, marry Lady Diana Spencer, at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The romance between the heir to the British throne and the young “Shy Di” had attracted massive media attention, and their lavish nuptials were considered the “wedding of the century.” But while Diana earned the adoration of the public, her marriage to Charles (and her relationship with the royal family) was troubled from the beginning.
READ MORE: How Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s Wedding Became a Global Event
Visit to China – 1986
In late 1984, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government agreed to return sovereignty over Hong Kong to China beginning July 1, 1997. In 1986, Elizabeth became the first British monarch to visit the Chinese mainland, touring the terracotta warriors in Xi’an, the Great Wall in Beijing and other sites. For the press, the diplomatic importance of the queen’s visit was outweighed by her husband’s characteristic (and sometimes racist) gaffes: Philip called Beijing “ghastly” and told a group of British students they would get “slitty eyes” if they stayed in China too long.
‘Annus Horribilis’ – 1992
Charles and Diana’s marriage continued to deteriorate, and in 1992 they announced their decision to separate. Prince Andrew, the queen’s second son, and his wife, Sarah Ferguson, also separated, while Anne divorced her husband, Mark Phillips. Late that year, a fire broke out in Windsor Castle, destroying more than 100 rooms. In a speech delivered to mark the 40th anniversary of her succession, Queen Elizabeth remarked that 1992 “has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis’”: Latin for “a horrible year.”
READ MORE: Charles and Diana Divorce
Response to Princess Diana’s death – 1997
Public criticism of the royal family grew more intense after Charles and Diana’s divorce in 1996 and especially after Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris the following summer. The queen initially remained at her estate in Balmoral, Scotland, and refused to allow the flag to fly at half-mast over Buckingham Palace or address the grieving nation.
At the urging of her advisers, she soon revised her stance on the flag, returned to London to greet crowds of mourners and delivered a rare televised address to a nation devastated by the loss of the “People’s Princess.”
READ MORE: Princess Diana’s Death: Causes, Timeline
Golden Jubilee – 2002
The queen’s celebration of her 50th year on the throne was marred by a double loss, when her younger sister, Princess Margaret, and their mother died within weeks of each other. As the first British monarch since Queen Victoria to celebrate a Golden Jubilee, Elizabeth traveled more than 40,000 miles that year, including visits to the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. She also visited 70 cities and towns in 50 counties in the United Kingdom.
Compared with the tumultuous 1990s, the start of Elizabeth’s second half-century as queen coincided with the beginning of more positive relations between Britain and its royal family: In 2005, a majority of the British public supported Charles’ wedding to his longtime love, Camilla Parker-Bowles.
Visit to Republic of Ireland – 2011
In May 2011, Elizabeth and Philip visited the Republic of Ireland at the invitation of President Mary McAleese. Though the queen had frequently visited Northern Ireland over the course of her reign, this was her first to the Republic of Ireland, and the first by a British monarch in 100 years. Elizabeth’s visit, during which she expressed her “sincere thoughts and deep sympathy” for the victims of the troubled Anglo-Irish past, was widely celebrated as the beginning of a new era of friendship.
Birth of Prince George – 2013
In July 2013, the queen welcomed a new great-grandson, Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, the first child of Prince William and the former Kate Middleton, who married in 2011. As third in the line of succession after his grandfather and his father, George is widely expected to become king one day. His birth marked the first time since Victoria’s reign that three generations of direct heirs to the British throne were alive at the same time.
Prince Harry & Meghan Markle’s wedding – 2018
Perhaps no other event during Elizabeth’s reign symbolized the modernizing monarchy more than the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, a divorced, biracial American actress. Though the queen reportedly gave her quick approval to the match, the relationship between the couple and the British media—as well as the rest of the royal family—grew increasingly tense after their marriage. In 2020, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced they were stepping back from their role as senior royals. They later moved to Markle’s native Southern California with their son, Archie, born in 2019.
Prince Philip’s death – 2021
On April 9, 2021, Prince Philip, Elizabeth’s husband of 73 years, died at the age of 99. The British monarchy’s longest-running love story began just before World War II, when 18-year-old Prince Philip of Greece met his third cousin, Princess Elizabeth, during her family’s visit to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, where Philip was studying. On November 14, 1947, the couple were married in Westminster Abbey, and King George VI named Philip as Duke of Edinburgh shortly after that. For more than a half-century, Prince Philip supported his wife in her royal duties and took on an ambitious slate of obligations of his own. Philip’s funeral was held on April 17, 2021. Because of coronavirus restrictions, only 30 guests were invited to attend. Photos of the queen sitting alone in St. George’s Chapel struck many as a symbol of her loneliness and grief.