60 years ago, on October 27, 1961, the Soviet Union detonated two nuclear weapons that were delivered into space by rockets.
It was a rare case during the years when the Soviet Union acted as a catch-up in the space race. After all, the United States conducted the world’s first tests of nuclear weapons in space as early as the summer of 1958.
Then the Soviet Union did not have time to respond to this challenge for two reasons. First, the American experiments became known only in 1959. And the second: between the Soviet Union and the United States, it was in 1958 (late autumn) that a moratorium on nuclear tests was established. Who, incidentally, was invited to join other countries. The Americans fired nuclear missiles before the moratorium came into force. Namely, after a series of tests in the upper atmosphere, on August 27, 1958, a Kh-17A missile fired from a warship in the southern part of the Atlantic delivered a nuclear charge to an altitude of 161 kilometers, where it was successfully detonated. . On August 30, a similar explosion was made in space already at an altitude of 292 kilometers. And the third space explosion under the Argus program in an even higher orbit was made on September 6, 1958. The results of these explosions led to the creation of artificial radiation belts in space near Earth, as measured by the Explorer IV satellite.
As already mentioned, due to the moratorium, the Soviet Union could not prepare and carry out similar tests. But the failure of the Geneva negotiations following the flight of the US U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over Soviet territory, as well as the nuclear tests launched by France in 1960, forced the Soviet leadership to abandon further compliance with the moratorium.
On October 27, 1961, two R-12 rockets from the test site Kapustin Yar sent nuclear charges into space, one of which exploded at an altitude of 150 kilometers and the other at an altitude of 300 kilometers. Both missiles also had special containers with measuring equipment. They separated before the explosion and flew some distance from the epicenter.
The purpose of Operation K (its first step was codenamed K-1, K-2 and K-3 was performed a little later) was to test the effect of nuclear explosions in space on the Soviet missile defense system’s missile attack detection devices (ABM). For this purpose, suitable equipment was installed at ground test sites below the explosion points. In addition to combat missiles, control missiles were fired after them after a certain time. Missile defense tracking devices were specifically targeted at them to determine if nuclear explosions affect the accuracy of detecting an incoming missile.
During the K-2 and K-3 stages, in addition to combat and control missiles, geodetic missiles created on the basis of R-5 were also launched. All tests were supervised by a prominent specialist in the field of radiophysics and radio technology, academic Alexander Shchukin. Explosions in space were monitored by 20 Soviet ground stations, and special photography was also carried out with ultra-high-speed film cameras. Although the tests were performed during the day, lightning in space was perfectly visible from the ground and to the naked eye. But only scientists, specialists and the military, who stood on the training grounds and airfields, knew what was happening. The rest of the inhabitants of the Soviet Union remained in the dark, because everything was secret.
The results based on the results of the tests noted that at a distance of up to 1000 kilometers from the epicenter of the explosions, strong radio interference was detected, underground power cables, telephone exchanges failed, power lines were damaged and the electromagnetic pulse led to short circuits of various devices, their ignition and even ignition. to fires at certain facilities.
The effect of nuclear explosions on space near Earth was studied by the Soviet satellites Kosmos-3, Kosmos-5 and Kosmos-7.
Operation K was terminated on November 1, 1962 by the K-5 stage, which also consisted of detonating a nuclear device, but not in space, but in the mesosphere (about 60 kilometers above the earth’s surface).
The map shows the flight path (in the form of a blue stripe) for R-12 missiles with nuclear warheads during Operation K. Photo: US Central Intelligence Agency / wikimedia.org