by Jerry Emanuelson, B.S.E.E.
Note: This is an article about Operation Fishbowl that I originally wrote in 2009 for Wikipedia. Although the article in Wikipedia is substantially unchanged after several months, it is out of my control once it is posted to Wikipedia, so I thought that it would be wise to post my own version on this site. A short video of the Bluegill Prime has been added.
Operation Fishbowl was a series of high altitude nuclear tests in 1962 that were carried out by the United States as a part of the larger Operation Dominic nuclear test program.
All of the tests were to be launched on missiles from Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean north of the equator. Johnston Island had already been established as a launch site for United States high-altitude nuclear tests, rather than the other locations in the Pacific Proving Grounds. In 1958, Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, opposed doing any high-altitude tests at locations that had been used for earlier Pacific nuclear tests. His opposition was because of fears that the flash from the nighttime high-altitude detonations might blind civilians who were living on nearby islands. Johnston Island was a remote location, more distant from populated areas than other potential test locations.(3) In order to protect residents of the Hawaiian Islands from flash blindness or permanent retinal injury from the bright nuclear flash, the nuclear missiles of Operation Fishbowl were launched generally toward the southwest of Johnston Island so that the detonations would be farther from Hawaii.
A test named Kingfish was added during the early stages of Operation Fishbowl planning. Two low-yield tests, Checkmate and Tightrope, were also added during the project, so the final number of tests in Operation Fishbowl were 5:
Successful High-Altitude Nuclear Tests of Operation Fishbowl
According to the United States government reporting system, in the above table: "Submegaton" means a nuclear weapon yield of less than one megaton and greater than 200 kilotons. "Low kiloton" means a nuclear weapon yield of less than 20 kilotons.(4) Probable weapon yields are discussed further in the text below describing the particular test. Detonation times are Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) in the format hours:minutes:seconds
The United States completed six high-altitude nuclear tests in 1958, but the high-altitude tests of that year raised a number of questions. According to U.S. Government Report ADA955694 on the first successful test of the Fishbowl series, "Previous high-altitude nuclear tests: TEAK, ORANGE, and YUCCA, plus the three ARGUS shots were poorly instrumented and hastily executed. Despite thorough studies of the meager data, present models of these bursts are sketchy and tentative. These models are too uncertain to permit extrapolation to other altitudes and yields with any confidence. Thus there is a strong need, not only for better instrumentation, but for further tests covering a range of altitudes and yields."(6)
There were three phenomena in particular that required further investigation:
1. The electromagnetic pulse generated by a high-altitude nuclear explosion appeared to have very significant differences from the electromagnetic pulse generated by nuclear explosions closer to the surface.
2. The auroras associated with high-altitude nuclear explosions, especially the auroras that appeared almost instantaneously far away from the explosion in the opposite hemisphere, were not clearly understood. The nature of the possible radiation belts that were initially generated along the magnetic field lines connecting the areas of the auroral displays were also poorly understood.
3. Areas of blackout of radio communication needed to be understood in much more detail since that information would be critical for military operations during periods of possible nuclear explosions.
The Fishbowl tests were monitored by a large number of surface and aircraft-based stations in the wide area around the planned detonations and also in the region in the southern hemisphere in the Samoan Islands region, which was known in these tests as the southern conjugate region. Johnston Island is in the northern hemisphere, as were all of the planned Operation Fishbowl nuclear detonation locations. It was known from previous high altitude tests, as well as from theoretical work done in the late 1950s, that high-altitude nuclear tests produce a number of unique geophysical phenomena at the opposite end of the magnetic field line of the Earth's magnetic field.
Explanation of Magnetic Conjugate Regions
According to the standard reference book on nuclear weapon effects by the United States Department of Defense, "For the high-altitude tests conducted in 1958 and 1962 in the vicinity of Johnston Island, the charged particles entered the atmosphere in the northern hemisphere between Johnston Island and the main Hawaiian Islands, whereas the conjugate region was in the vicinity of the Samoan, Fiji, and Tonga Islands. It is in these areas that auroras were actually observed, in addition to those in the areas of the nuclear explosions."(8)
According to the Operation Fishbowl planning document of November 1961, "Since much valuable data can be obtained from time and spectrum resolved photography, this dictates that the test be performed at nighttime when auroral photographic conditions are best."(7) As with all U.S. Pacific high-altitude nuclear tests, all of the Operation Fishbowl tests were completed at night. This is in contrast to the Soviet high-altitude tests of the K Project, which were done over the populated land region of central Kazakhstan, and therefore had to be done during the daytime to avoid eyeburn damage to the population from the very bright flash of high-altitude nuclear explosions (as discussed in the introduction to this article).
On 9 July 1962, at 09:00:09 UTC, which was nine seconds after 10 p.m. (on 8 July 1962) Johnston Island local time, the Starfish Prime test was successfully detonated at an altitude of 400 kilometers (250 mi). The coordinates of the detonation were 16 degrees, 28 minutes North latitude, 169 degrees, 38 minutes West longitude (30 km., or about 18 miles, southwest of Johnston Island).(11) The actual weapon yield was very close to the design yield, which has been described by various sources at different values in the very narrow range of 1.4 to 1.45 megatons (6.0 petajoules). (The detonation time was 9 seconds after 11 p.m. on July 8 in Honolulu.)
The Thor missile carrying the Starfish Prime warhead actually reached an apogee (maximum height) of about 1100 km. (just over 680 miles), and the warhead was detonated on its downward trajectory when it had fallen to the programmed altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles). The nuclear warhead detonated at 13 minutes and 41 seconds after liftoff of the Thor missile.(12)
Starfish Prime caused an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which was far larger than expected, so much larger that it drove much of the instrumentation off scale, causing great difficulty in getting accurate measurements. The Starfish Prime electromagnetic pulse also made those effects known to the public by causing electrical damage in Hawaii, about 1,445 kilometers (898 miles) away from the detonation point, knocking out about 300 streetlights, setting off numerous burglar alarms and damaging a telephone company microwave link.(11)
A total of 27 small rockets were launched from Johnston Island to obtain experimental data from the shot, with the first of the support rockets being launched 2 hours and 45 minutes before the launch of the Thor missile carrying the nuclear warhead. Most of these smaller instrumentation rockets were launched just after the time of the launch of the main Thor missile carrying the warhead. In addition, a large number of rocket-borne instruments were launched from a firing area at Barking Sands, Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands.(13)
A very large number of United States military ships and aircraft were operating in support of Starfish Prime in the Johnston Island area and across the nearby North Pacific region. A few military ships and aircraft were also positioned in the southern conjugate region for the test, which was near the Samoan Islands. In addition, an uninvited scientific expeditionary ship from the Soviet Union was stationed near Johnston Island for the test and another Soviet scientific expeditionary ship was located in the southern conjugate region.(14)
After the Starfish Prime detonation, bright auroras were observed in the detonation area as well as in the southern conjugate region on the other side of the equator from the detonation. According to one of the first technical reports, "The visible phenomena due to the burst were widespread and quite intense; a very large area of the Pacific was illuminated by the auroral phenomena, from far south of the south magnetic conjugate area (Tongatapu) through the burst area to far north of the north conjugate area (French Frigate Shoals). . . . At twilight after the burst, resonant scattering of light from lithium and other debris was observed at Johnston and French Frigate Shoals for many days confirming the long time presence of debris in the atmosphere. An interesting side effect was that the Royal New Zealand Air Force was aided in anti-submarine maneuvers by the light from the bomb."(13)
The southern hemisphere aurora that appeared almost immediately after the detonation (in the southern conjugate region) was centered on the coordinates of 17.22°S, 175.95°W. This is pretty much directly north of Tonga and directly east of Fiji.(26)
The Starfish Prime radiation belt persisted at high altitude for many months and damaged the United States satellites Ariel, Traac, Transit 4B, Injun I and Telstar I. It also damaged the Soviet satellite Cosmos V. All of these satellites failed completely within several months of the Starfish detonation.(9) There is also evidence that the Starfish Prime radiation belt may have damaged the satellites Explorer 14, Explorer 15 and Relay 1.(16) (28)
Telstar I lasted the longest of the satellites that were clearly damaged by the Starfish Prime radiation, with its complete failure occurring on February 21, 1963.(17)
On 25 July 1962, a second attempt was made to launch the Bluegill device. Due to a sticking valve, the Thor missile malfunctioned after ignition of the rocket engine, but before leaving the launch pad. The range safety officer destroyed the nuclear warhead by radio command with the missile still on the launch pad. The Thor missile then exploded, causing extensive damage in the area of the launch pad.
Although there was no danger of an accidental nuclear explosion, the destruction of the nuclear warhead on the launch pad caused extensive contamination of the area by alpha-emitting radioactive materials. Burning rocket fuel, flowing through the cable trenches, caused extensive chemical contamination of the trenches and the equipment associated with the cabling in the trenches.
The radiation contamination on Johnston Island was determined to be a major problem, and it was necessary to decontaminate the entire area before the badly damaged launch pad could be rebuilt.(18)
Continuation of the Fishbowl Series:
After a pause of nearly three months, Operation Fishbowl was ready to continue, beginning with another attempt at the Bluegill test.
Bluegill Double Prime:
Eighty two days after the failure of Bluegill Prime, about 30 minutes before midnight on the night of 15 October 1962, local Johnston Island time (16 October UTC), another attempt was made at the Bluegill test. The Thor missile malfunctioned and began tumbling out of control about 85 seconds after launch, and the range safety officer ordered the destruction of the missile and its nuclear warhead about 95 seconds after launch.(20)
On 19 October 1962, at about 90 minutes before midnight (local Johnston Island time), an XM-33 Strypi rocket launched a low-yield nuclear warhead which detonated successfully at an altitude of 147 km. (91 miles). It was reported that the yield and burst altitude were very close to those desired, but according to most official documents the exact nuclear yield remains classified. It is reported in the open literature as simply being less than 20 kilotons. One report by the U.S. federal government, however, reported the Checkmate test yield as 10 kilotons.(5)
It was reported that, "Observers on Johnston Island saw a green and blue circular region surrounded by a blood-red ring formed overhead that faded in less than 1 minute. Blue-green streamers and numerous pink striations formed, the latter lasting for 30 minutes. Observers at Samoa saw a white flash, which faded to orange and disappeared in about 1 minute."(21)
Bluegill Triple Prime:
The fourth attempt at the Bluegill test was launched on a Thor missile on 25 October 1962 (Johnston Island time). It resulted in a successful detonation of a submegaton nuclear warhead at about one minute before midnight, local time. (The official Coordinated Universal Time was 0959 on 26 October 1962.) Although officially reported only as being in the submegaton range (meaning more than 200 kilotons but less than one megaton), most observers of the U.S. nuclear testing programs believe that the nuclear yield was about 400 kilotons.(22) One report by the U.S. federal government, however, reported the test yield as 200 kilotons.(5)
Since all of the Operation Fishbowl tests were planned to occur during the nighttime, the potential for eyeburn, especially for permanent retinal damage, was an important consideration at all levels of planning. Much research went into the potential eyeburn problem. One of the official reports for the project stated that, for the altitudes planned for the Bluegill, Kingfish and Checkmate tests, "the thermal-pulse durations are of the same order of magnitude or shorter than the natural blink period which, for the average person, is about 150 milliseconds. Furthermore, the atmospheric attenuation is normally much less for a given distance than in the case of sea-level or near-sea-level explosions. Consequently, the eye-damage hazard is more severe."(9)
Two cases of retinal damage did occur with military personnel on Johnston Island during the Bluegill Triple Prime test. Neither individual had his protective goggles in place at the instant of the detonation. One official report stated, "In the first case, acuity for central vision was 20/400 initially, but returned to 20/25 by six months. The second victim was less fortunate, as central vision did not improve beyond 20/60. The lesion diameters were 0.35 and 0.50 mm. respectively. Both individuals noted immediate visual disturbances, but neither was incapacitated."(9)
There had been concern that eyeburn problems might occur during the earlier Starfish Prime test, since the countdown was rebroadcast by radio stations in Hawaii, and many civilians would be watching the thermonuclear detonation as it occurred.(9) However, no such problems in Hawaii during the Starfish Prime event were reported.
The Kingfish detonation occurred at 0210 (Johnston Island time) on 1 November 1962 and was the fourth successful detonation of the Fishbowl series. It was officially reported only as being a submegaton explosion (meaning in the range of more than 200 kilotons, but less than a megaton), but most independent observers believe that it used the same 400 kiloton warhead as the Bluegill Triple Prime test(22), although one report by the U.S. federal government reported the test yield as 200 kilotons.(5)
As with the other Fishbowl tests, a number of small rockets with various scientific instrumentation were launched from Johnson Island to monitor the effects of the high-altitude explosion. In the case of the Kingfish test, 29 rockets were launched from Johnston Island in addition to the Thor rocket carrying the nuclear warhead.(23)
According to the official report, at the time of the Kingfish detonation, "Johnston Island observers saw a yellow-white, luminous circle with intense purple streamers for the first minute. Some of the streamers displayed what appeared to be a rapid twisting motion at times. A large pale-green patch appeared somewhat south of the burst and grew, becoming the dominant visible feature after 5 minutes. By H+1 the green had become dull gray, but the feature persisted for 3 hours. At Oahu a bright flash was observed and after about 10 seconds a great white ball appeared to rise slowly out of the sea and was visible for about 9 minutes."(23) (The term "H+1" means one minute after the nuclear detonation.)
After most of the electromagnetic pulse measurements on Starfish Prime had failed because the EMP was so much larger than expected, extra care was taken to obtain accurate EMP measurements on the Bluegill Triple Prime and Kingfish tests. The EMP mechanism that had been hypothesized before Operation Fishbowl had been conclusively disproven by the Starfish Prime test. Prompt gamma ray output measurements on these later tests were also carefully obtained so that a new theory of the mechanism for high-altitude EMP could be developed and confirmed.
As of mid-2010, the EMP waveforms and prompt gamma radiation outputs for Bluegill Triple Prime and Kingfish remain classified. An unclassifed report, however, confirms that these measurements were successfully made and that a subsequent theory (which is the one now used) was developed which describes the mechanism by which the high-altitude EMP is generated. That new theory does give results which are consistent with both the Bluegill Triple Prime and Kingfish data.(24)(25) (The report actually using the Bluegill Triple Prime and Kingfish data to confirm the new EMP theory is the still-classified Part 2 of the unclassified report.)(24)
According to a Sandia National Laboratories report, EMP generated during the Operation Fishbowl tests caused "input circuit troubles in radio receivers during the Starfish and Checkmate bursts; the triggering of surge arresters on an airplane with a trailing-wire antenna during Starfish, Checkmate, and Bluegill; and the Oahu streetlight incident."(11) (The "Oahu streetlight incident" refers to the 300 streetlights in Honolulu extinguished by the Starfish Prime detonation. Those streetlights were extinguished due to fuses blown by the E1 component generated by the Starfish Prime EMP.)
The final test of Operation Fishbowl was detonated on at 2130 (9:30 p.m. local Johnston Island time) on 3 November 1962. (The time and date was officially recorded as 0730 UTC, 4 November 1962.) It was launched on a Nike-Hercules missile, and detonated at a lower altitude than the other Fishbowl tests. Although it was officially one of the Operation Fishbowl tests, it is sometimes not listed among high-altitude nuclear tests because of its lower detonation altitude. The nuclear yield was reported in most official documents only as being less than 20 kilotons. One report by the U.S. federal government, however, reported the Tightrope test yield as 10 kilotons.(5)
"At Johnston Island, there was an intense white flash. Even with high-density goggles, the burst was too bright to view, even for a few seconds. A distinct thermal pulse was also felt on the bare skin. A yellow-orange disc was formed, which transformed itself into a purple doughnut. A glowing purple cloud was faintly visible for a few minutes."(23)
Seven rockets carrying scientific instrumentation were launched from Johnston Island in support of the Tightrope test.
1. Defense Nuclear Agency. Operation Dominic I. 1962. Report DNA 6040F. (First published as an unclassified document on 1 February 1983.) Page 227.
2. "Operation Dominic". Nuclear Weapon Archive.
3. Defense's Nuclear Agency 1947-1997. Page 139. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, 2002
4. Simon S.L. and Robison W.L., "A compilation of nuclear weapons test detonation data for U.S. Pacific ocean tests." Health Physics, 1997. July, Volume 73, issue 1, pages 258-264.
5. Allen, R.G., Jr., Project Officer. Report ADA995365. "Operation Dominic: Christmas and Fish Bowl Series. Project Officers Report. Project 4.1" 30 March 1965. Page 17.
6. Defense Atomic support Agency. Project Officer's Interim Report: STARFISH Prime. Report ADA955694. August 1962
7. Air Force Special Weapons Center. "Preliminary Plan for Operation Fishbowl." Report ADA469481, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. November 1961.
8. Glasstone, Samuel and Dolan, Philip J., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. Chapter 2, sections 2.144 and 2.145. United States Department of Defense. 1977.
9. Hoerlin, Herman "United States High-Altitude Test Experiences: A Review Emphasizing the Impact on the Environment" Report LA-6405 Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. October 1976
10. Defense Nuclear Agency. Operation Dominic I. 1962. Report DNA 6040F. (First published as an unclassified document on 1 February 1983.) Page 227.
11. Vittitoe, Charles N., "Did High-Altitude EMP Cause the Hawaiian Streetlight Incident?" Sandia National Laboratories. June 1989.
12. Dyal, P., Air Force Weapons Laboratory. "Operation Dominic. Fish Bowl Series. Debris Expansion Experiment." Report ADA995428 10 December 1965. Page 15.
13. United States Department of Defense. Report ADA955411. "A Quick Look at the Technical Results of Starfish Prime." August 1962.
14. United States Central Intelligence Agency. National Intelligence Estimate. Number 11-2A-63. "The Soviet Atomic Energy Program.". Page 44.
15. United States Department of Defense. Report ADA955411. "A Quick Look at the Technical Results of Starfish Prime." August 1962.
16. Defense Nuclear Agency. Wenaas, E.P., Jaycor Report RE-78-2044-057. DNA Report ADA191291. "Spacecraft Charging Effects on Satellites Following Starfish Event."
18. Defense Nuclear Agency. Operation Dominic I. 1962. Report DNA 6040F. (First published as an unclassified document on 1 February 1983.) Page 229-241.
19. Defense Nuclear Agency. Operation Dominic I. 1962. Report DNA 6040F. (First published as an unclassified document on 1 February 1983.) Page 236.
20. Defense Nuclear Agency. Operation Dominic I. 1962. Report DNA 6040F. (First published as an unclassified document on 1 February 1983.) Page 241.
21. Defense Nuclear Agency. Operation Dominic I. 1962. Report DNA 6040F. (First published as an unclassified document on 1 February 1983.) Page 241.
23. Defense Nuclear Agency. Operation Dominic I. 1962. Report DNA 6040F. (First published as an unclassified document on 1 February 1983.) Page 247.
24. Longmire, Conrad L., Theoretical Note 368. "Justification and Verification of High-Altitude EMP Theory, Part 1." Mission Research Corporation/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. June 1986. Page 3.
25. Longmire, Conrad L., "Fifty Odd Years of EMP", NBC Report, Fall/Winter, 2004. pp. 47-51. U.S. Army Nuclear and Chemical Agency.
26. Berg, R.A., Holland, D.H., and Futtermah, W.I., Lockheed Research Laboratory. "A Starfish Happening". DASA-1926. ADA955681. March 1967.
27. General Electric Company - TEMPO. Report DNA-1251-2-EX. (ADA-079310). 1 May 1979. pp. 328-333.
28. Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Report DTRA-IR-10-22. (Also designated ADA531197). Conrad, Edward E., et al. Collateral Damage to Satellites from an EMP Attack. August 2010.