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The Vela Incident



On 22 September 1979, sometime around 3:00am local time, a US Atomic Energy Detection System satellite recorded a pattern of intense flashes in a remote portion of the Indian Ocean. Moments later an unusual, fast-moving ionospheric disturbance was detected by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and at about the same time a distant, muffled thud was overheard by the US Navy's undersea Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS). Evidently something violent and explosive had transpired in the ocean off the southern tip of Africa.

Examination of the data gathered by satellite Vela 6911 strongly suggested that the cause of these disturbances was a nuclear device. The pattern of flashes exactly matched that of prior nuclear detections, and no other phenomenon was known to produce the same millisecond-scale signature. Unfortunately, US intelligence agencies were uncertain who was responsible for the detonation, and the US government was conspicuously reluctant to acknowledge it at all.

The United States established the Vela satellite network in the 1960s for the specific purpose of monitoring compliance with the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. Though each satellite's intended lifespan was only eighteen months, the units continued to detect detonations for years thereafter. Prior to the mysterious event of September 1979, the orbital surveillance system had successfully recorded forty-one atomic detonations, twelve of which were spotted by satellite Vela 6911.

Though the Vela satellites were bristling with atom-bomb sensing equipment, their most effective apparatus was each unit's pair of aptly-named bhangmeters. These photodiode arrays were tuned to detect the one-millisecond burst of intense light created by a nuclear fireball, and the subsequent secondary light caused by the hydrodynamic shockwave of ionized air. The sensor's engineers had been skeptical of its potential-- hence their decision to name it after the Indian variation of cannabis called "bhang"-- but the predictable pattern of bright flashes proved to be an extremely effective method for detecting atomic explosions from orbit. In over a decade of operation, the network of unblinking electronic eyes had yet to record a single false positive with the atomic-bomb signature.

Aerial photo of Bouvet Island

Due to the satellites' design and their distant orbit of 70,000 miles, technicians were not furnished with the exact location of nuclear events; the sensors could only narrow the area down to a 3,000 mile radius. Available data suggested that the 1979 Vela incident occurred near Bouvet Island, a frozen scrap of earth famous as the most isolated isle in the world. The tiny island was home to a Norwegian automated weather station, and in 1964 an abandoned lifeboat of unknown origin was found there, filled with supplies. But presumably the island was completely uninhabited at the time of the energetic event, meteorological automatons and enigmatic castaways notwithstanding.

When the technicians at the Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC) first received the detection signal, they were not aware of the related observations from SOSUS and Arecibo. But the Vela report was strong evidence on its own: the signature was too unique to be explained by other phenomena, the flashes were orders of magnitude brighter than any non-nuclear source on earth, and the likelihood of both bhangmeters artificially producing the same specific pattern was vanishingly small. US intelligence concluded that a 2-4 kiloton nuclear device had likely been exploded between South Africa and Antarctica. No nations admitted responsibility for the covert test, but intelligence reports indicated that the most probable perpetrator was Israel, possibly working in cooperation with South Africa.

Upon receipt of the intelligence docket, President Carter called an urgent meeting in the White House situation room. His administration had placed considerable emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation, therefore the US would be expected to respond harshly to any confirmed atmospheric test. If Israel were linked to the covert explosion, the resulting trade sanctions-- or the refusal to impose them-- would be politically precarious for the President, particularly while campaigning for re-election. Though there was no reason to doubt the detection, President Carter ordered the creation of an advisory panel, with a special emphasis on seeking non-nuclear explanations.

In the subsequent weeks, the AFTAC findings and the resulting intelligence report were buried in a shallow grave of reasonable doubt. Although both bhangmeters on Vela 6911 had observed the alleged atomic event, they had recorded the flashes at distinctly different intensities. The elderly satellite's electromagnetic pulse (EMP) detector had long ago failed, therefore it was unable to corroborate the observations. Vela 6911's sister satellite hadn't detected anything at all, though its working condition at that time was unknown.


Mockup of an Israeli nuclear bomb, photographed by Mordechai Vanunu


Today a mountain of Vela-incident intelligence remains classified, but a few heavily redacted reports have been released by the US government. Although these documents indicate considerable internal disagreement regarding the cause of the double-flash signal, they offer little new evidence. In his 2006 book On the Brink, retired CIA spy Tyler Drumheller wrote, "My sources collectively provided incontrovertible evidence that the apartheid government had in fact tested a nuclear bomb in the south Atlantic in 1979, and that they had developed a delivery system with assistance from the Israelis." Unfortunately he does little to elaborate on the event or on his evidence, except to state that the South African bombs employed a "highly accurate delivery system using gliders." One factor which casts doubt on the South African covert test theory is the conspicuous lack of South African scientists disclosing their participation, even after the fall of the apartheid.

Perhaps one day, when the redactions have receded and declassified documents are disseminated, further light will be shed on the Vela incident of 1979. If the distinct double-flash pattern was not a nuclear detonation, the Vela event would represent the only instance in history where a Vela satellite incorrectly identified an atomic blast-- in which case the true cause may forever remain unknown and/or irrelevant. In any case, the flurry of falsifications and artificial investigations churned up in the wake of the incident clearly demonstrated governments' unwavering willingness to renegotiate reality for political purposes, even in the shadow of a mushroom cloud.

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