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The day the sky flashed twice: the mysterious Vela Incident.

November 20, 2014

My questions for @MalcolmFraser12 about this incident…

nuclear war

Thirty-four years ago today, on September 22, 1979, an orbiting satellite called Vela detected two strange flashes in the sky near the Prince Edward Islands in the South Indian Ocean, not far from Antarctica. The “double flash” pattern observed by the satellite was consistent with a low-yield nuclear explosion, two to three kilotons. If it was a nuclear explosion, something was obviously very, very wrong: nuclear testing in the open atmosphere has been banned since the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and obviously no country would claim responsibility for violating it.

Was the double flash a nuclear test? It’s not entirely certain. Although the data received from Vela was consistent with that, the satellite itself was not working at 100%. Its EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) sensor was malfunctioning, and it was already two years beyond its designed lifetime. Vela had itself been bamboozled a few years before when a “superbolt”–an unusually…

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