Federal lab declassifies 250+ never-before-seen nuclear test videos from Cold War era

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been working for years to preserve the estimated 10,000 videos of nuclear bomb tests made by the U.S. government during the Cold War.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory nuclear test videos from Cold War era
(Credit: U.S. Military/Common)


The U.S. military detonated more than 200 atomic bombs during the Cold War era as part of nuclear weapons testing. Each detonation was carefully recorded by multiple cameras filming at 2,400 frames per second. In 1962, that footage effectively became some of the only data available to scientists studying nuclear weapons after the U.S. agreed to stop all above-ground nuclear testing.

But over the years those films were scattered across the country in various classified archives.

Recently, a team at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), a federal research facility, released about 250 declassified videos of U.S. nuclear tests as part of a long-term project to restore and digitize the footage, which might have been lost to time had it not been for the preservation effort.

“The goals are to preserve the films’ content before it’s lost forever, and provide better data to the post-testing-era scientists who use computer codes to help certify that the aging U.S. nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure and effective,” reads a press release published on the LLNL website.

The U.S. is estimated to have created about 10,000 nuclear test films from 1945 to 1962, which was when the Partial Test Ban Treaty stopped above-ground nuclear testing. So far, the LLNL has located about 6,500 of those films, scanned some 4,200, reanalyzed 400 to 500, and declassified about 750.

In past decades, scientists had to manually analyze nuclear testing footage. It was a long and often inaccurate process.

“When you go to validate your computer codes, you want to use the best data possible,” LLNL nuclear weapons physicist Greg Spriggs said. “We were finding that some of these answers were off by 20, maybe 30, percent. That’s a big number for doing code validation. One of the payoffs of this project is that we’re now getting very consistent answers. We’ve also discovered new things about these detonations that have never been seen before. New correlations are now being used by the nuclear forensics community, for example.”


National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Here’s a quick look at some of the declassified videos.

Operation Hardtack I — Nutmeg

The NUTMEG detonation took place in 1958 on the surface of the Bikini Atoll at the Pacific Proving Grounds, a name the U.S. government gave to a series of sites in the Marshall Islands near Micronesia. A total of 35 nuclear weapons would be detonated nearby that year as part of Operation Hardtack I.

Operation Redwing — Zuni

Detonated on May 27, 1956, Zuni was the first-ever test of a three-stage thermonuclear weapon. It was later developed into the Mk-41 bomb, the most powerful weapon ever deployed by the U.S. military.

Operation Sunbeam — Johnnie Boy

In 1962, the U.S. military detonated Johnnie Boy, a portable atomic bomb, at the Nevada National Security Site about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Now, thousands of tourists sign up each year to visit what the L.A. Times described as a “radioactive ghost town.”

Spriggs said he hopes the project supports nuclear deterrence around the world.

“It's just unbelievable how much energy’s released,” Spriggs said. “We hope that we would never have to use a nuclear weapon ever again. I think that if we capture the history of this and show what the force of these weapons are and how much devastation they can wreak, then maybe people will be reluctant to use them.”

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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