Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of Telstar 1, the first U.S. communications satellite to relay television signals, phone calls, and fax images through space. But just as the astromech-like satellite started to settle in orbit and make its ground-breaking transmissions, it had to contend with nothing less than the remnants of a nuclear explosion that had gone off the day before. The radioactivity proved to be more than the little satellite could handle.

From Saswato R. Das's account in Scientific American:

By the following February, however, Telstar 1 had been completely fried by energetic electrons from a U.S. high-altitude nuclear test.

Walter Brown, a Bell Laboratories engineer who worked on the project, recalls Telstar 1's triumphs and untimely demise. Currently a professor of materials science and engineering at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, he says it was his job to "examine how radiation in space affects solar cells and semiconductors." He got rather more than he bargained for.

The day before launch, the U.S. had set off a nuclear explosion at an altitude of 400 kilometers just southwest of Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. The test, known as Starfish Prime, released the energy equivalent of 1.4 megatons (million tons) of TNT-creating a huge electromagnetic pulse that produced spectacular aurora over the Pacific.

"The people who set off the nuclear explosion were totally surprised by the huge number of high energy electrons that were released," Brown says. "They had no idea this would be the case until we started seeing this huge flux, a hundred times what was predicted."

The satellite unwittingly became an experiment to analyze the aftermath of a nuclear blast on electronic equipment. "We learned a lot about radiation damage from Telstar 1," he says. "Initially, Telstar 1 couldn't be turned on, some transistors had failed. But the electronics engineers figured a way around that and got it working."

Check out Das's entire article as there's lots more to this tragic tale.


Top image of Fishbowl-Kingfish via Los Alamos National Laboratory. Inset image via NASA.