Thursday, September 21, 2006
The Vela Incident, September 22, 1979
Today in 1979, an American satellite detected a possible nuclear explosion of two to three kilotons near the Prince Edward Islands, a dependency of South Africa located in the southwest Indian Ocean. Documentation of what would become known as the Vela Incident remained classified for years as the world wondered which nation had detonated the weapon.
The name Vela comes from the Spanish verb "velar", meaning to keep a vigil. The US satellites which detected the mysterious nuclear explosion were called Vela after Project Vela, the American program to monitor Soviet adherence to the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. The Vela 6911 satellite which detected the explosion had been in orbit for 10 years and was almost three years beyond its projected service life. This fact would become an issue in the following months.
The US National Security Council studied the data provided by the Vela satellite and, in January 1980, concluded that the explosion was a nuclear test and that it was most likely carried out by South Africa. President Jimmy Carter, unconvinced of the reliability of the data, convened another panel in the summer of 1980. They concluded that the detected anomaly was most likely not a nuclear explosion, but that the possibility could not be ruled out entirely. The panel theorized that a collision with a small meteorite could have caused an effect that to the satellite would have appeared to be an explosion on or near the surface of the Earth. Or, they reasoned, the sensors on the satellite could simply have been worn out and not working properly.
It soon became clear that politics had entered the debate over the Vela data. President Jimmy Carter had spent much of his term working towards a nuclear nonproliferation treaty with the Soviet Union. At that time, the two nations thought most likely to conduct a nuclear test in that region were South Africa (as mentioned before) and Israel. Both nations were allies of the United States and President Carter believed that their nuclear tests could jeopardize the progress he had made with the Soviets. Negotiations would go much more smoothly if he had some evidence that a test had never occurred.
As time went by, however, evidence began to surface that strengthened the case for a nuclear test. The US Navy detected the explosion from thousands of miles away and the radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico detected an anomalous disturbance in the ionosphere. Half a year later, researchers in western Australia detected increased amounts of radiation in the area. The detonation had almost certainly occurred; who had done the deed remained a mystery.
In the years since the Vela Incident, many theories have been put forward as to who was responsible for the test. According to documents released since the fall of the apartheid government in South Africa, that nation did have a nuclear program in 1979 but had yet to construct a weapon. Although the government in Tel Aviv will neither confirm or deny their ownership of nuclear devices, Israel most likely had nuclear weapons in 1979. Why or how they would perform a test thousands of miles from home is unknown, but if they did, the South African government probably either helped or at least knew of the event beforehand. India became a third suspect, but most analysts agree that their nuclear program was not to a live testing stage by the end of the 1970's.
Over the course of the past 15 years, various military and media figures in South Africa and Israel have made statements claiming knowledge of a nuclear test near the Prince Edward Islands in 1979. However, none of their claims can be proven because almost all of the American satellite and other intelligence data remains classified. In May, 2006 some of the relevant information was released by the US government, but not enough to make a solid case one way or another.
So as we stand today, 27 years later, most of the world knows little more about the Vela Incident than it did the day it occurred. And we may never know the truth.
Posted by Matt Dattilo at 9:41:00 PM
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