Post-launch speration of Vela 5A and 5B: Vela was the name of a group of satellites developed as the Vela Hotel element of Project Vela by the United States to detect nuclear detonations to monitor compliance with the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty by the Soviet Union. © Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Throughout human history, our skies have played host to an array of strange and enigmatic light phenomena. These celestial occurrences have often been perceived as omens, messages from the divine, or even encounters with supernatural beings. Yet, among these puzzling events, one stands out in particular – the Vela Incident.
The Vela Incident, occasionally referred to as the South Atlantic Flash, unfurled as an unidentified double flash of light that perplexed astronomers and researchers when it was first detected by a United States Vela satellite on September 22, 1979. Initial interpretations suggested that this double flash bore the hallmarks of a nuclear explosion. However, recent declassified information surrounding this enigmatic event raises doubts, stating that “it was probably not from a nuclear explosion, although it cannot be ruled out that this signal was of nuclear origin.”
On the fateful night of September 22, 1979, at precisely 00:53 GMT, the satellite bore witness to this peculiar double flash, characterized by a rapid and brilliant burst of light, followed by a more extended and less luminous one. The satellite’s data indicated that this could potentially be an atmospheric nuclear explosion, estimated to be in the range of two to three kilotons. The event seemingly unfolded in the vast Indian Ocean, sandwiched between Bouvet Island (a Norwegian dependency) and the Prince Edward Islands (South African dependencies). Swiftly, US Air Force planes were dispatched to investigate the scene, only to find no discernible signs of a detonation or radiation.
Intriguingly, a 1999 US Senate whitepaper added further layers of mystery, stating, “There remains uncertainty about whether the South Atlantic flash in September 1979 recorded by optical sensors on the US Vela satellite was a nuclear detonation and, if so, to whom it belonged.” It is worth noting that the 41 double flashes recorded by the Vela satellites before this incident were invariably linked to nuclear weapons tests.
Speculations surrounding the Vela Incident have abounded over the years. Some have conjectured that it might have been the result of a covert joint Israeli or South African initiative. Commodore Dieter Gerhardt, a convicted Soviet spy and former commander of South Africa’s Simon’s Town naval base, hinted at such a possibility, although concrete evidence remains elusive.
Alternative explanations have also been put forth. Some propose that a meteoroid striking the satellite might have caused the mysterious flashes. Others suggest that atmospheric refraction, the camera’s response to natural light, or unusual lighting conditions triggered by humidity or atmospheric aerosols could offer a plausible rationale. However, even with these theories in mind, scientists remain uncertain about the precise cause and nature of the Vela Incident.
In the annals of unexplained phenomena, the Vela Incident continues to stand as an enduring mystery, a testament to the vast complexities of our universe. As we delve further into the realms of science and technology, the hope remains that one day, we may uncover the truth behind this baffling cosmic enigma, shedding light on an event that has remained shrouded in darkness for decades.