Remembering the Vela Incident

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A dual payload of Vela satellites deployed in low Earth orbit. Image credit: NASA

36 years ago today, a strange event was detected over the Southern Indian Ocean that remains controversial. On September 22nd, 1979, an American Vela Hotel satellite detected an atmospheric explosion over the southern Indian Ocean near the Prince Edward Islands. The event occurred at 00:53 Universal Time on the pre-dawn nighttime side of the Earth. Vela’s gamma-ray and x-ray detectors rang out in surprise, along with its two radiometers (known as Bhangmeters) which also captured the event.

The approximate location of the flash seen by the Vela-5b satellite Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/public domain

What was it?

Even today, the source of the Vela Incident remains a mystery. Designed to detect nuclear detonations worldwide and enforce the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Vela satellites operated for about ten years and were also famous for discovering evidence for extra-galactic gamma-ray bursts.

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A Vela payload in the lab. Image credit: The U.S. Department of Defense

Vela-5B was the spacecraft from the series that detected the mysterious flash. A Titan-3C rocket launched Vela 5B (NORAD ID 1969-046E) on May 23rd, 1969 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

One of the first things scientists realized early on in the Cold War is that the Universe is a noisy place, and that this extends across the electromagnetic spectrum. Meteors, lightning, cosmic rays and even distant astrophysical sources can seem to mimic certain signature aspects of nuclear detonations. The ability to discern the difference between human-made and natural events became of paramount importance and remains so to this day: the hypothetical scenario of a Chelyabinsk-style event over two nuclear armed states already on a political hair-trigger edge is a case in point.

Over the years, the prime suspect for the Vela Incident has —> Read More