Friday, January 27, 2012

Hot Snow

Sixty one years ago today, at 3:30 am PST on January 27th 1951, at 7,000 feet over Railroad Valley, members of a special weapons crew began inserting a nuclear capsule into the open nosecone of a MKV nuclear device.  At 5:44:30 am PST Able shot took place 1,060 feet over Frenchman’s flats dry lakebed in the Nevada Test Site (NTS).  Two days earlier the Las Vegas Review–Journal had run a banner headline whose huge two–inch letters declared, “VEGAS A–BOMB POPS!”. 

Almost five years earlier, on July 1st 1946, the Able device was detonated 520 feet over the Bikini Atoll; its target was the red and white painted battleship “Nevada”.  The Able device was a 23 kiloton fission device, and it failed to sink the Nevada.  Due to a faulty tailfin the bomb missed its intended aimpoint by 710 yards. 

Seconds after the Able shot Ronald Gardner, circulation manager for the Las Vegas Review–Journal, was wakened from a deep sleep.  For an instant the barely-breaking dawn sky was a bright as mid-day.   Windows were broken a hundred miles away.

The Las Vegas Review–Journal ran a banner headline whose huge two–inch letters declared, “VEGAS ‘ATOM-IZED’”. 

The Able shot was only the tenth nuclear detonation ever.  At 1 kiloton it was small compared with most of the others.  An experienced observer remarked that it provided a “lesser show”.

B-29’s tasked with monitoring the after-blast effects flew through Able shot’s cloud; they could hear the plane sandblasted with ejecta from the dry lakebed as they did.  Visually the Able shot cloud appeared to rise as high as 35,000 feet and then break apart.  Other B29’s tracked it more precisely; it passed over the Sangre-de-Cristo mountains south of Denver CO at 7pm MST.  At 9 am EST on the 29th of January 1951 the cloud passed over the southern New England coast, and was estimated to be 300 miles wide.  It started to snow.

Before the crippling blow of digital photography thousands of rolls of film were processed in the Eastman-Kodak plant in Rochester New York.  They constantly measure background radiation, as it can expose film.  On the 29th of January 1951 the snow that fell on Rochester New York was significantly radioactive.

The Able shot was the first of hundreds of nuclear tests conducted at the NTS.

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