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Starfish Prime: The First Major, Observable Man-made EMP in History

April 08, 2018 0 Comments

Just 5 days after Independence Day in 1962, our military put on its own show in the sky across the Pacific.

In a project code-named Starfish Prime part of Operation Fishbowl, the Atomic Energy Commission launched a thermonuclear warhead on the nose of a Thor rocket, detonating 250 miles above the ocean.

People from Hawaii to New Zealand witnessed a sky illuminated with rainbow stripes and artificial auroras. These auroras, we now know, are caused by pulses of electromagnetic radiation, or EMPs. Solar flares cause the natural auroras like our Northern Lights, and can occasionally cause massive EMPs.

This was the first major, observable man-made EMP in history, however.

It did more than create a pretty intra-atmospheric light show, as well.

Almost immediately after detonation, the power went out in Hawaii, with 300 streetlights being blown out, and telephone communications down. This was nearly 1,000 miles from the blast.

In the months after, nearly a third of the satellites in low Earth orbit were crippled by trapped nuclear radiation in the atmosphere. This included Telstar, the AT&T communications satellite launched one day after Starfish. The Soviets also launched a high-altitude nuke in October 1962, which also damaged the transistors on Telstar, finally rendering it useless.

These effects were not the intent of the test. What were they?

The answer lies at the intersection between the two races of the Cold War: arms and space.

4 years earlier, a University of Iowa physicist named James A. Van Allen claimed to have discovered that our planet was surrounded by a "deadly band of X-rays."

This radiation explained why many of the satellites at that time frequently jammed. People also began to theorize that these X-rays would make manned space flight impossible. It also cast doubt on Soviet claims of putting a dog into space for a week aboard Sputnik II.

These X-rays were eventually determined to be bands of high-energy particles held in place by strong magnetic fields and came to be known as the Van Allen Belts.

The very same day Van Allen released his findings, he agreed to cooperate on a top-secret military project. Science historian James Fleming points out that the thinking may have been, "if we don’t do it, the Russians will."

That was the nature of the arms race during the Cold War. Neither superpower wanted to be caught behind or without a new technological capability. Fleming believes the U.S. may have been interested in using the Van Allen belts to attack the enemy. The idea was that the belts could be disrupted or directed with a blast.

Starfish Prime proved the exact opposite of that theory. The blast actually added more electrons to the Van Allen belts, which contributed to the uncontrollable aftereffects that lasted months and years.

How Starfish Prime Applies to the Present

In early September 2017, North Korea claimed to set off a Hydrogen bomb. Judging by the artificial earthquake it set off, it appeared to be its most powerful explosion yet. The assumed yield was between 50 and 60 kilotons, according to the Associated Press and South Korean weather agencies.

Then, in November, North Korea launched it’s most powerful and successful intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. This Hwasong-15 missile shot nearly 3,000 miles into the sky and landed in the sea of Japan less than 200 miles from its coastline.

David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that if the missile had flown on a standard trajectory, it would have been capable of traveling over 8,000 miles, long enough to reach Washington D.C. or any part of the continental U.S.

Experts believe that until the North Koreans are able to miniaturize their warheads to fit on these missiles and perfect tracking and guidance systems, their ability to carry out an accurate strike is next to none.

But is that their goal?

Shortly after the September H-bomb explosion, North Korean state media reported that it "is a multi-functional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power which can be detonated even at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack according to strategic goals."

If North Korea’s strategic goal is to cause the most harm, they may already know that accuracy is not essential. A high-altitude detonation (or several) in a central enough location above the mainland would be sufficient, as the EMP could reach coast to coast if powerful enough. And the warhead will only have to be miniaturized just enough to make it above our heads.

I’m sure the “experts” on what North Korea is capable of and motivated to do will tell me I’m wrong. But doing so would ignore the dozens of times North Korea has proved us wrong in the past 2 years alone.

Ignorance serves no one – especially those of us who are vigilant and prepare.

We’ll continue to keep our eye on North Korea. We know they remain our largest EMP threat, and every American deserves to hear it without media bias.

Finally, we have to share something we can’t put down.

In our EMP research, we come across loads of information. Some of it is good, some not so. Every once in a while we find something truly illuminating.

In October, an organization we have been following called Secure the Grid Coalition released an updated "Call to Action for America."

In this 9-page report, Secure the Grid details all the current issues surrounding EMP security.

One fact they put very succinctly: "roughly two dozen cyber attacks per day are directed against our power grid and/or our critical infrastructures." This is a stark reminder that we can’t overlook non-nuclear threats as well.

The report also makes another important point clear. We’re all in this together:

"Whose problem is this? EVERYONE’S! Is grid security a democrat vs. republican issue? Is grid security a liberal vs. conservative issue? Is grid security a race, religion, sexual orientation or gender issue? NO, to all of the above! This danger will kill up to 90% of us regardless of our personal differences."

It is my sincere hope that we all wake up to unite and harden against these threats now. It could be just the antidote we need to quell the divides in this country. However, I pray that a crisis is not required to precipitate this unity.

Secure the Grid has 4 recommendations for citizens. To simplify them:

  1. Spread the word to everyone you know.
  2. Write your federal officials to harden the grid.
  3. Write your local and state officials as well.
  4. Prepare yourself and your family.

On point #4, they note "Start with the assumption that help won’t be coming, and if it did, could be many months away." For this reason, they recommend well beyond the official 3-14 days of food and water that most advise. We do too. As we always say, you can never over-prepare.

To read Secure the Grid’s full report, follow the link at the bottom of this page.

I’ll leave you with one final quote from the Secure the Grid report. It’s directed at the powers that be, but I believe it can also be powerfully applied to our personal preparedness as well:

"Concern without action achieves little, but concern with action can be unstoppable."

Thank you for reading our latest installment in our ongoing series on EMPs. We encourage you to share this far and wide with your networks. You can use the Twitter and Facebook buttons at the bottom of this page to easily do so.

Have a great weekend. Stay vigilant and safe out their, fellow Patriots.

In Liberty,
Elizabeth Anderson
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply


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