Ep. 518: When the Universe tried to Declare War

Posted on Feb 14, 2019 in High Energy Physics, Physics, podcast | 0 comments

We always say the Universe is trying to kill us. But there was this one time, when the Universe used our own fear of nuclear attack against us, nearly setting off a global nuclear war. Nice try Universe, we’re on to you now.

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Show Notes

Satellites Vela 4 and Vela 3 – Gamma-ray bursts were first observed in the late 1960s by the U.S. Vela satellites, which were built to detect gamma radiation pulses emitted by nuclear weapons tested in space.
Gamma Ray Bursts
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Norwegian Rocket Incident
Chelyabinsk Meteor Incident
Solar Eclipses and Meteor Showers historically caused panic, before they were able to be predicted


Dr. Pamela Gay: This episode of astronomy cast is brought to you by 8th Light, Inc. 8th Light is an agile software development company. They craft beautiful applications that are durable and reliable. 8th Light provides disciplined software leadership on demand, and shares its expertise to make your project better. For more information, visit them online at www.8thflight.com. Just remember, that’s www dot, the digit eight, T-H, L-I-G-H-T dot com. Drop them a note. 8th Light, software is their craft.

Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast, Episode 518: When the Universe tried to Declare War. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos. Where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know.

I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of “Universe Today,” with me as always, Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute, and the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey Pamela, How ya doin’?

Dr. Gay: I’m doing well, how are you doing?

Fraser: Great. Rumor has it, you’re gonna say a bunch of names at the end of this episode.

Dr. Gay: I am, we are working on thanking all of our Patreons who have donated at the appropriate levels, which is $10 and up. So, we’re not gonna do it all in one episode, because that’s a lot of names. We are so grateful for all of you, but we’re gonna spread it out over a few episodes. So, today is the first day of saying thank you.

Fraser: All right so, if you are one of the Patreons at that level, Listen to the end and hear Pamela say your name, and if you not then you should consider it.

Dr. Gay: Yes, yes. Do that.

Fraser: Join the Patreon campaign, and then you will know that you are contributing to helping out with science, and you’ll hear Pamela say your name. That’s at – going to patreon.com/astronomycast?

Dr. Gay: Exactly.

Fraser: All right. We always say the universe is trying to kill us, but there was this one time when the universe used our own fear of nuclear attack against us. Nearly setting off a global thermonuclear war. That’s right, universe. We’re on to you now. So we thought, until we made the mistake again. All right Pamela, so you picked a pretty weird topic this week, but I’m willing to go along with it. Let’s get into the times that the universe used our own technology, against us, to make us think we were fighting.

Dr. Gay: Yes, so as you may know from watching me on twitter. I have been re-watching Stargate SG-1in its 10-season, entirety, and it is fabulous and it brings me joy.

Fraser: I should do that again.

Dr. Gay: Yeah.

Fraser: I love Stargate SG-1 so much, and my forgetful memory like, how much of it stuck with you and how much of it is these are great new episodes?

Dr. Gay: Exactly, exactly. Last time I watched it, I was still really early in my career and I didn’t fully appreciate Samantha Carter as much as I should have. So now, as I am further along seeing the place of this female PhD physicist, it is just fabulous. But, this is what gets me is over and over, across the seasons, they have these – okay we are going to self-destruct the facility. We are going to do this thing We are to launch that thing; were to blow up this other thing. Oh wait, we must understand what was going on. We’re fine, we’re fine ignore us over here. We didn’t almost kill you.

Fraser: It’s a trip, across all science fiction. In fact, the latest –

Dr. Gay: It’s true, but they do it more often others.

Fraser: Sure, but, no, no. Star Trek does it all the time, that this alien probe is shutting down the systems across our spacecraft. One by one and our only hope is to eject the warp core. Oh no, wait. It was trying to communicate with us. Never mind.

Dr. Gay: Yeah.

Fraser: It was just really yelling at us.

Dr. Gay: So, this got me thinking. This is actually one of the things that kinda does actually happen, where our own inability to recognize what we’re doing almost causes war. Or at least, causes a great deal of panic. Any Of you in Hawaii, or paying attention to national news know that a couple years ago, while tensions were highest with North Korea, between United States and North Korea, there was a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System in Hawaii that went terribly sideways.

When they accidentally announced, “This is not a test. There is a missile headed towards Hawaii seek shelter.” Yeah, yeah.

Fraser: I remember watching this unfold on the news, and just knowing what when I got onto that story already knowing that there was no nuclear attack, but can’t even imagine what it would feel like to check your phone and your phone says you’re about to be nuked. You’re in Hawaii, there’s nowhere you can go. That’s it, you’re done. Put your affairs in order and say goodbye.

Dr. Gay: Exactly, and with this particular example, it was simply user error on the part of the poor sod who was learning how to use Emergency Broadcasting System, and screwed up. But, the reason he screwed up is because the system allowed him to put that message out without enough different safeties in the system. And, it turns out, we almost started a war in the USSR, for a similar reason back in November 1979.

In this case, instead of a simple test of the Emergency Broadcast System, it was a test of the emergency nuke the rest of the planet system. NORAD – they were running a test and all the on-screen indications suddenly showed that the Soviet Union had launched an all-out attack on the United States. So, the folks had to decide, do we fire back, do we follow the protocols. No one thought to actually pick up the red phone and go, “Hey, are you trying to kill us?”

Fraser: Yeah.

Dr. Gay: According to a senator who was inside the NORAD facility at the time, there was an air of absolute panic up until the moment they realized: this is just our simulator running. After that mistake, they no longer ran the simulation on the actual, active system, and instead set up an off-site test facility for running the simulations.

Fraser: That just sounds horrible. And again, but terrifying to a small group of people who were in the office who are – I’m sure everyone was panicking as this was happening, but it didn’t necessarily leak out to the larger environment. But, the one, and I’m sure this is going on, is the discovery of gamma ray bursts, which we‘ve mentioned several times in the past.

Dr. Gay: Yes.

Fraser: Let people know how this unfolded.

Dr. Gay: So here – nuclear weapons is kind of that great concern that we all have for very good reasons. Yeah, I’m just gonna end there. I don’t need to explain this one. It just, kind of, is one of those great fears that if you don’t have, you have a level of internal peace I do not understand. So, back in 1960s, recognizing our – well, our ability to blow up ourselves and the rest of the world multiple times over, the United States and the USSR put into place a ban on testing aboveground various supernova.

There were still concerns, though, that maybe the Soviets would find other ways to test their new nukes, to advance their technology and their ability to destroy things. One of the places that we were worried, which is very much above ground, that they would be doing the testing is behind the moon.

So, we launched satellites. We launched the Vela 4 and Vela 3 satellites in July of 1967, and these particular spacecraft were put into orbit 65,000 miles up. High enough up that they wouldn’t be affected by the Van Allen radiation belt, which we talked about a few episodes back. From this orbit, they’d be able to detect nuclear bomb signals, and hopefully separate them out from known other sources of gamma ray bursts. Such as, solar flares and supernova events.

Now, while they were orbiting, while they were waiting. They started detecting these signals that just didn’t do the things they quite expected from supernova, didn’t do the things they quite expected from the sun, but they also didn’t do what was quite expected of a nuclear bomb. A nuclear bomb explosion; because it is, in the grand scheme of the universe, such a small amount of mass that is detonating and undergoing nuclear reactions, you get only a very brief and intense blast of gamma ray’s.

What they detected, was instead something that had two distinct peaks in its light curve, and while it might have been a solar flare or a supernova, there weren’t any that occurred that we knew about at this time. So, this led to everyone going: hold the expletive, is this a nuke is a something unexplained. Because, it’s gamma ray bursts, because it’s gamma rays – the gamma rays just go through the planet, no big deal.

So, trying to figure out, using just two spacecraft, where the heck these things were coming from couldn’t be done as an exact science. What the different spacecraft were doing was they were each listening, and then the time delay between each spacecraft hearing the signal, sensing signal at their detectors, gave a vague notion of the difference in light travel time for the two detectors, in a vague sense, of where the source is coming from.

But to pinpoint it, you need three. Because, space is three-dimensional, plus time.

Fraser: Right. So, you know the hemisphere that it’s coming from, not the precise location.

Dr. Gay: So, there is this whole long period of: what the expletive is going on, and do we need to have our fingers on these keys? Do we need to fire, do we need to have a preparation? Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. While everyone was on alert, it turned out that this was a matter of a military satellite actually conducting really cool science. Eventually in 1970, as more of these Vela satellites were launched, specifically with the goal of determining the direction – these satellites were 10,000 km apart.

They were able to figure out that they weren’t coming from anything in our solar system, and eventually we were able to figure out that they are coming from not just external to our solar system, but from all directions in the sky, which meant there probably coming from at least the spheroid of our galaxy, if not further out. Today, thanks to finally in the 90s, figuring out what the suckers were

Fraser: Yeah.

Dr. Gay: We now know these are exploding stars, emerging neutron stars.

Fraser: They’re still trying to puzzle out the mysteries of exactly what mechanisms will lead to a gamma ray burst. What is the underlying star that leads to it? We’ll probably continue for the next couple of decades to finally have a proper model of how these things work. I love this idea that that there are events that happen out there in the in the larger universe that are blocked by the atmosphere.

X-rays, gamma rays, some forms of infrared radiation. So, we have no way to see this stuff. No way to even understand that it exists, until you send spacecraft up and it’s able to detect these things. You would feel, and hopefully, if we run across any more of these events in the future where we – people develop neutrino weapons, and then we set up a neutrino detector – although that’s the opposite example because neutrinos will go to the earth just fine.

But, you know what I’m talking about.

Dr. Gay: Yeah.

Fraser: That we will have learned, right? That as soon as we expand – gravitational wave, no. Anyway. As soon as we figure out some new form of seeing the universe – let’s just be careful and make sure that the universe doesn’t have a way of being able to actually do this.

So, you send up this spacecraft, you don’t realize that there the sources of gamma radiation and then suddenly – pop, pop, pop. You detect them. It’s a pretty funny way of doing science. So, I think that is the that is one of the most classic examples where you go up, you’re not expecting this and suddenly here’s this evidence of gamma radiation and you almost think it’s a nuclear attack. Tell me more.

Dr. Gay: The thing about this example at least, was there wasn’t that moment of fingers on the keys, getting ready to launch. There was a whole lot of should we do that. It turns out in 1995, our eagerness to do science, and by we, I mean I United States and Norwegian scientists, are eager to do science and our inability to fully think through who we need to warn before we make a science; almost led to the Soviet Union responding. In this case, it would have been the newly formed Russia responding with a launch of nuclear weapons.

In this case, there is launch facility up in Norway that is used to launch sounding rockets that are most often being launched to study the northern lights, to study the Aurora Borealis. The interactions between solar particles in the Earth’s magnetic fields. In some cases, there even generating artificial aurora in their studies.

It’s really cool research. It’s really studying one of the most beautiful local phenomena in science. But, there’s that little thing called the rocket launch that’s going on, and back in January of 1995 they didn’t warn all the appropriate people of the rocket they would be launching. They tried, they tried. In an investigation –

Fraser: They didn’t tell me.

Dr. Gay: Yeah, they didn’t tell you, they didn’t tell me. Apparently, while they told Russia, they told the wrong people in Russia, and the news never percolated all the way to the radar operators. Who are making sure that there are not inbound missiles fired on Russia. So, when this occurred, we had this moment of a Black Brandt XII research rocket being launched from the Andoya rocket range, and it looked identical to the launch of a Trident ballistic missile. This is –

Fraser: Oh, from like a submarine or, right.

Dr. Gay: Yeah. So, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who was notified of this by the Russian radar operators, who were not in the chain of science information, and Boris Yeltsin actually summoned the nuclear briefcase. That one you see in photos as being like chained to the wrist of somebody.

Fraser: Right, the football I think, is the American version of it.

Dr. Gay: This is the only – Yeah, it still a briefcase, chained to human in both cases, and this is the only time known – there could be other times we don’t know about. But, this is the only time that is known of the briefcase being activated.

Fraser: Oh –oh man.

Dr. Gay: Yeah, yeah. Luckily, they watched to make sure that the rocket, what they thought was a Trident ballistic rocket, was actually headed towards their space. Luckily, we knew enough not to point, even our scientific sounding rockets, toward Russian airspace. It was near Russian airspace, but it minded its own national borders, and nuclear war was not started in the name of studying the Aurora Borealis.

Fraser: We’ve had some other examples of this. Not necessarily leading to the end of everything, but we’ve had other examples of this. Like in – I think it was Norway or Russia, or people in Norway saw this really weird spiral structure in the atmosphere in the evening, and it was just this huge spiral and people were wondering what it was.

Dr. Gay: It was gorgeous. It was saying over Scandinavia.

Fraser: Yeah, and what it ended up being was a broken rocket. So, the Russians had launched a rocket. It had a problem, and it spun out of control and was throwing out propellant in this gigantic spiral shape as it was dying. People were able to see this, as you say, all over Scandinavia.

Dr. Gay: We’ve scared the West Coast I don’t know how many times.

Fraser: Right. Yeah, with the SpaceX launches.

Dr. Gay: The SpaceX launches, and also with the occasional testing of actual Tridents that we test over the Pacific. Because, it’s big. We don’t test them with nuclear –

Fraser: Right.

Dr. Gay: – tips, but nonetheless, we make sure they fire, periodically. Yeah, so apparently we like to scare ourselves as much as we like to scare other nations.

Fraser: You see examples of this. Like when SpaceX does its launches out of the Vanderburgh facility, and sends up this rocket that easily visible from 20 million people in the in the region, and you see everything posted on to social media. That’s when you know. That’s what a UFO sighting would actually look like, is tons and tons and tons of people all seeing this same event. That’s been completely explained by SpaceX, and NASA and all the people involved. But, still people are on expecting, they stand outside and go, what is that? Do any other examples of the universe –?

Dr. Gay: What is kind of cool, I don’t know if you realize this, but today is the six year anniversary of the Chelyabinsk meteor coming in and attempting to destroy the faces of a whole lot of people in the city of Chelyabinsk. Because, it exploded with a bright flash of light. It was a bolide. All these people saw a flash of light coming through their window. They stood up, walked up to the window and discovered the hard way that sound travels slower than light, as the sound wave struck their windowpanes and imploded the windows towards their faces.

Now this, at the time, was generally not thought to be a weapon, but there definitely were moments of: what the expletive? Then, more recently, as figured out by the exact same group of Colombian scientists, who figured out exactly where the asteroid trajectory was for Chelyabinsk using YouTube videos. Today, we had a press release explaining a meteor that went in over Cuba. That particular meteor was actually caught on Doppler radar.

Leading to the moment of: oh dear, what is that; and the realization that the trajectory it was on, and the fact that people were seeing bright lights in Florida and the Keys meant, this was a meteor not a missile.

Fraser: Hal McKinney in the chat notes: What about every solar eclipse before Galileo? I think that’s a great example –

Dr. Gay: Which it is.

Fraser: – of the fact that, right – that before people could accurately predict when the solar eclipses were going to happen. They would randomly show up, and sometimes they would happen right in the midst of some major event.

Dr. Gay: Battle.

Fraser: A battle or some big event. So, people would – they would take this as a sign from the universe that what they were doing was right, or what they were doing was wrong and that they should either keep doing this or stop doing this. However, they would interpret it. It’s an interesting thing that just through sheer, random chance that you haven’t to be out there on the battlefield when the sun disappears.

Dr. Gay: Meteor showers are another one of those things. As someone who reads far too much science fiction, one of the plots that I have yet to see at least done, or at least done well, is the idea of the little green man invading during the meteor shower. You see this hit or miss. Men in Black had the idea of a meteor hit masqueraded well, roach creature, coming to earth.

But, it’s during these meteor showers that there is so much potential for people be looking up enjoying the incoming grains of sand, and missing the incoming well man-made, rocket made, whatever made craft of death and doom. So, here we have opportunities that are lost to mistakes things for World War III for science fiction writers. Please real world don’t do this.

Fraser: We’ve also got examples of things that we’ve lost track of.

Dr. Gay: Yeah, yeah.

Fraser: Like, there are thoughts that some of the asteroids that come close to the earth are actually just spent rocket boosters. There was a quasi-moon that was following the earth around. Now, astronomers are pretty sure it’s one of the Apollo, upper stage rocket boosters that was it thrown out during the mission.

Dr. Gay: It’s still a moon, it’s just man-made.

Fraser: A man-made moon, yeah. We call those satellites. I believe. Still, there’s trash, and then you can imagine it coming back to Earth, and crashing into the Earth. Then, you got – Go ahead.

Dr. Gay: This brings us to an almost international incident where ISS Soviet cosmonauts or Russian cosmonauts, now; were trying to figure out, and a giant knife was involved in this. Whether or not the International Space Station had been hit with a micrometeorite? Had been purposefully sabotaged by Americans, or had simply had a manufacturing error? All they knew for certain, is they sprung a leak and they fixed it with duct tape. Because, that’s what you do.

The hole they had the patch with duct tape was perfectly circular. The argument was if it was a micro meteorite. It probably would’ve had a different shape, maybe, they didn’t know. If it had been created by a human being, it wouldn’t have gone all the way through the outer insulation, and it would’ve looked different on the outside of the spacecraft.

So, during what is one of the most ridiculous spacewalks of all time, where you have Mission Control in a very Russian way saying, “Just stop, just go inside. Stop,” but with more words than that. They were all Russian. You see cosmonauts not stopping, and instead, essentially taking the astronaut equivalent of a machete to the outer insulation of one of the Soviet capsules. Digging with violence to find out what exactly happened.

There were tensions of, what is this American sabotage of the Soviet part – Russian part of the International Space Station?

Dr. Gay: Yeah, and you were seeing people making these kinds of elaborate conspiracy theory responses, that in fact, yeah, that the Americans were trying to sabotage the international space station, which is so weird; and fairly prominent people in the Russian space administration. Do we know what it ended up being?

Dr. Gay: They’re pretty sure that it was a mistake during manufacturing where someone just slipped with the drill, patched it and didn’t patch it well enough. But, it definitely was probably, the kind of thing that someone wouldn’t have fessed up to that accidentally led to an, almost, incident of international levels. There were times when we were buying Soviet rocket – Russian – I’m going to keep screwing this up.

I’m so sorry everyone for screwing this up. As a child growing up in the 80s, I had it beat out of beat out of me, it is not Russia. It is the Soviet Union, and as an adult went to the Soviet Union more times than she went to Russia. I keep screwing this up. I’m so sorry. While we are buying Russian rocket engines to use on American launch vehicles, I there was concern that maybe some of the issues that we kept saying were due to sabotage of the engines that we were purchasing.

That they were purposely trying to foil the American space system. So, it turns out the space race is one of those things where from launching sounding rockets to looking for gamma rays from exploding nukes. We keep doing science and we keep almost instigating international war, and for the love of all that you love, do not run your simulation software, whether it be for the emergency broadcasting system or for detecting incoming nukes, do not run it on your live system

Have a development system; learn from the rest of us who write websites.

Fraser: I think for the future, as we head off into space, as we start to move asteroids around mine comets, as we start to use various exotic kinds of nuclear thrusters just remember that it’s probably not a declaration of war. That it’s just people going about their business.

Dr. Gay: Maybe, live stream all your launches, so that everyone knows what’s going on.

Fraser: Yeah, that sounds good.

Dr. Gay: Before we go I just wanted take a moment to thank some of the amazing people that make this show possible. That make it possible for us to pay for our software, to pay for hosting and most importantly of all; make it possible for us to pay Susie, and thus, for Susie to send her kiddo to college. So, you are making education possible. It is both the education of our audience and of Susie’s kiddo.

So without further ado; I want to say thank you to Jordan Young, Barry Gowen, John Jorsk, Romji Anathmaalu, David Troig, The Giant Nothing, Andrew Polstara, Les Howard, Frank Trippen, Laura Kittleson, Robert Polsma, Emily Patterson and Kjartan Tsarvary. I’m gonna say more thanks to more of you, next week. I’m just can keep doing this as long as we have new people who are our Patreon patrons at the $10 level or higher.

Thank you all for making what we do possible

Fraser: All right, thanks Pamela. We’ll talk to you next week.

Dr. Gay: Thank you, Fraser.

Announcer: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, A non-profit resource provided by the Planetary Science Institute, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at Astronomy Cast. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com, tweet us @AstronomyCast, like us on Facebook, and watch us on YouTube. We record our show live on YouTube every Friday at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, 12:00 p.m. Pacific, or 1900 UTC. Our intro music was provided by David Joseph Wesley. The outro music is by Travis Searle, and the show was edited by Susie Murph.
[End of Audio]
Duration: 30 minutes

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