Oldies and Oddities: Homebuilt Radiation Belt

From the Attic to the Archive

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in October 1957, the United States feared that nuclear missiles would soon follow. How could we stop them? In the Dr. Strangelove era, no idea was too absurd, and Nicholas Christofilos, an elevator engineer turned nuclear physicist, had a doozy.

Christofilos had only undergraduate degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering, but he had become a top military scientist at California's Livermore Laboratory with a reputation for audacious creativity. He suggested that an atomic explosion in space could generate a vast flux of electrons, which would form a shell of energy over Earth, a phenomenon that became known as the "Christofilos effect." The result, Christofilos suggested, might fry Soviet warheads.

A recent high-altitude test had already demonstrated how a nuclear blast could disrupt ground-based electronics, but the Christofilos effect, it was theorized, could create a defense: The speeding electrons trapped in Earth's magnetic field would produce radiation that might disrupt the arming and fusing mechanisms of enemy warheads. When the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, detected the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding Earth in January 1958, Christofilos' ideas seemed even more plausible.

The Atomic Energy Commission put together a plan to detonate small atomic weapons above the atmosphere to create the Christofilos effect for study. Time was crucial, because in the fall of 1958 a potential moratorium on atomic testing loomed. Argus was up and running in only five months, and by early August 1958, the nine ships of the U.S. Navy's Task Force 88 were heading for various points in the Atlantic Ocean.

Three Lockheed X-17A three-stage missiles, each modified to carry a 1.7-kiloton W-25 plutonium warhead, would be fired from the USS Norton Sound in the south Atlantic, a remote locale chosen for its windswept winter, which assured there would be no activity in the vicinity. Just before 2:30 a.m. on August 27, the first nuclear weapon to be launched from a ship left the deck of the Norton Sound.

A third-stage failure resulted in a nuclear detonation at a lower altitude than planned, but the explosion seven minutes later was high enough to partially confirm the Christofilos effect. The Task Force 88 team watched in awe as a brilliant flash spread across the horizon, and a pale red glow transformed into an eerie, greenish-blue aurora high above, forming glowing streamers along the direction of magnetic north and south.

Two more launches followed on August 30 and September 6, while the latest U.S. satellite, Explorer 4, probed the results. Explorer 4 had been launched just before Argus began—publicly to further investigate the Van Allen radiation belts but secretly to also analyze the Argus experiments. James Van Allen's instruments, along with measurements from ships, airplanes, and sounding rockets, confirmed Christofilos' predictions. The Argus explosions had indeed created artificial radiation belts around Earth.

But hopes that the Christofilos effect would provide a defensive shield against Soviet missiles faded quickly. The electron belts created by the experiments were too weak and transitory to do much damage to enemy missiles that would pass through them at thousands of miles per hour. Christofilos, dubbed "the Crazy Greek" by the press, continued to explore ideas (some of which are still classified) until his death in 1972.

Fifty years after Argus, however, the Crazy Greek doesn't seem quite so crazy. Space-based nuclear tests in the early 1960s proved that the Christofilos effect could disable satellites. Now that near-Earth space harbors hundreds of satellites of critical economic and military importance, strategists are considering the Christofilos effect anew. Even a technologically humble rogue state could launch a missile and detonate a low-yield nuke high over its territory, creating a Christofilos effect that would cripple the satellites of its more sophisticated rivals.