The Explosions on Bouvetoya

The Explosions on Bouvetoya

Here’s a cold little story about a frozen island to keep you occupied on a warm July evening…

Bouvetoya (or, in English, Bouvet Island) is listed as the most remote place on earth. Its nearest neighbor is Queen Maud Land, Antarctica — a mere 1600 kilometers away. There are no harbors, no towns, no recorded human history previous to 1739, when Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier sailed passed in the French ships “Aigle” and “Marie”. Except for lichen and moss, no vegetation grows on Bouvet Island, and no fauna lives there except for birds and transient seals. No one lives on the island — although, according to Wikipedia, Bouvetoya has an international calling code of 47 and the internet country code of .bv.

So, on September 22, 1979, it came as quite a surprise when a United States Vela satellite recorded a flash of light near Bouvetoya. This double flash, characteristic of an atmospheric nuclear explosion of two to three kilotons, is still not completely resolved. No one claimed responsibility for nuclear testing in the area, and while rumors circulate that South Africa or Israel were involved, the capabilities of those countries’ nuclear programs does not match up with the size and time of the explosion. 

How did they record this flash? Well, in 1963, the Vela satellite program was launched in order to detect nuclear explosions from space. Two groups of Vela satellites were developed, and the second generation, called Advanced Vela, were launched between 1967 and 1970. The upgraded Vela satellites carried an optical sensor called a “bhangmeter” which can detect atmospheric tests. The satellite in question, Vela 6911, was presumably one of the Advanced Vela pair which were launched on May 23, 1969, and had thus been operating for over ten years at the time of the incident.

Bhangmeters record light fluctuations on a sub-millisecond time scale, and register the unique dual flash signature of a nuclear explosion. This occurs as the light of the initial fireball is overtaken by the expanding hydrodynamic shock wave, hiding it. As the shock wave passes, the second flash becomes visible. No known natural phenomenon shows this dual flash, and so the Vela satellites and their bhangmeters were very successful in detecting nuclear testing. In fact, every other dual flash reported by the Vela satallites has been confirmed as actual nuclear tests.  Only the explosion over Bouvetoya has ever raised questions.

The Vela Incident brings to mind the Tunguska Event of 1908 — that particular catastrophe flattened trees over 2000 square kilometers of Russia’s isolated north. Both the Vela Incident and the Tunguska Event occurred in isolated places. Both were strange and powerful explosions of mysterious origins (although Tunguska was much larger).

But while the Vela Incident was noticed immediately by the scientific community, the Tunguska Event wasn’t studied until 1921. Were they similar phenomena? What could’ve caused the blasts? Who’s blowing crap up in remote places? I’ve always been interested in the Tunguska Event, but the dual flash of Bouvetoya is interesting and mysterious all by itself — just like the island.

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