The Vela Incident: The Night the Sky Flashed Twice

The Vela Incident: The Night the Sky Flashed Twice.

How hard is it to hide a Nuclear explosion? Well obviously, it is very hard to do. During the Cold War, both East and West tested and detonated hundreds of nuclear weapons at various test sites around the world. Need it be in the deserts of the United States,  or the remote corners of the Soviet Union, these test were done to both study the strength of each new nuclear warheads. As well as study the effects of nuclear fallout and develop contingency plans if a nuclear attack were to happen.

Places such as the Nevada Test Site and Bikini Atoll are well known for the tests which took place over the years. Even Australia and Algeria played host to nuclear explosions as well, as both the British and French governments tested their first nuclear weapons in the remote desert regions in these countries. If you are developing Nuclear Weapons, it would make sense that you would need a remote area to test them out.  Usually, governments  who tested these weapons owe up to conducting such detonations. But it 1979, all that changed….

The Vela Incident: The Night the Sky Flashed Twice
Vela Satellite

On the night of September 22nd, 1979, the Satellite Vela 10 detected a “Double Flash” event near the Prince Edward Island in the South Indian Ocean. Now Vela 10 was one of 12 such Satellites which were launched by the United States in the 1960s. The mission of the Vela Satellites were to monitor the compliance of the Soviet Union under the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. An agreement which outlawed the testing of all nuclear weapons, minus test which were conducted underground. As a result, these satellites were equipped with advanced sensors which could detect such explosions.

But on the night of the 22nd, Vela 10 detected a double flash while orbiting over the southern Indian Ocean. A brief yet intense flash, followed by an second, much longer lasting flash was detected between the Prince Edward Islands (South Africa) and the Corzet Islands (France). This was a tell tale sign that a nuclear explosion had occurred, as the Vela satellites had detected 41 such nuclear detonations with the same “Double Flash” event in the past.

The Vela Incident: The Night the Sky Flashed Twice
Boeing WC-135

In response to the data which had been collected, the United States began an investigation into the event by deploying WC-135 “Constant Phoenix” surveillance aircraft to the region. As these aircraft were designed with the intent of identifying nuclear explosions and the resulting fallout. While other assets such as the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) and the Missile Impact Location System (MILS) were also used in the investigation. But despite these efforts, nothing at first was found as s there was not enough data to support the idea that an Nuclear Explosion had taken place. But a study into the wind patterns of the region, coupled with a spike in radiation levels over Australia, strongly suggested that a such an even had occurred and that the nuclear fallout had crossed the Indian Ocean to Australia.

So… who was responsible for the Blast?

There are many countries who have been linked to the explosion and violating the 1963 agreement. Some believe that since the blast occurred near to the French administrated Kerguelen islands, that France may have been behind the 3 kiloton explosion. A possible result of them testing a neutron bomb or something similar. But the location  did not make sense, as France already tested their weapons in the Pacific and had no reason to move.

India had also been suggested as being behind the alleged blast. Just five years earlier, India joined the Nuclear league of nations when they detonated “Smiling Buddha” at Pokhran Test Base in Rajasthan. This did not sit well with the rest of the world and there were some sanctions against India as a result. It may have been possible that this blast was a result of the Indian government covertly testing another such weapon in the South Indian Ocean in secret. But despite the outrage from Smiling Buddha, India didn’t really violate the 1963 treaty as the blast was conducted under ground and they were not hiding their nuclear capability.

The Vela Incident: The Night the Sky Flashed Twice
POKHRAN, INDIA nuclear test. “Smiling Buddha”


But among the possible candidates for the Blast, only 2 countries stand out. Israel and South Africa.

At this point in history, both countries did have functioning nuclear programs and it was believed in some circles that the Israelis did possess Nuclear Weapons. Israel was more or less South Africa’s only friend after the United Nations placed an arms embargo and sanctions on the Apartheid Regime and had provided a lot of technical support for that country’s arms industry. This theory of a South African-Israeli bomb is also supported by a claim made by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, that the Israeli Navy had sent sent two vessels into the South Indian Ocean around the same time of the Double Flash. It must be noted though that Hersh was the individual who broke the story of Operation Jenifer” later known as “Operation Azorian”. The CIA mission to salvage a Russian Submarine just some years earlier.

The Vela Incident: The Night the Sky Flashed Twice
Negev Nuclear Research Center, where it is Believed Israel developed their own Nuclear weapons

Then again, it is possible that the event was mainly an Israeli operation with assistance from South Africa. There is a rumor  that the Double Flash  detected in the Indian Ocean, was in fact the third such test conducted by Israel in the region. Israel was well aware of the Vela Satellites in orbit and were monitoring their movements, so they knew just when they would have an opening to test such a weapon. Add to the fact that the Indian Ocean was not known as an area where nuclear test were done and that South Africa would have more than likely allowed them to carry out such test near the Prince Edward Islands, the case of an Israeli Nuclear Test grows even more.

But somehow, Vela 10 just happened to be orbiting over the Indian Ocean when the event occurred. Leaving us a mystery that has yet to be solved.

There are even some who believe that the Double Flash was actually a natural event due to an “Auroral Arc” that may have brightened to an unusually high intensity from natural causes. Resulting in the Double Flash which was detected by the Vela Satellite. But it does not explain the spike in radiation over Australia.

Today the Vela Incident is one of the more perplexing and extraordinary mysteries to come out of the Cold War. Just the idea that someone managed to explode a Nuclear Device without drawing attention to themselves is amazing in its own right. But until someone fesses up and takes credit for their actions, we  just may never know what happened the night the sky flashed twice.