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The Question

(Submitted January 07, 1997)

I have seen shows on my cable that is on the NASA channel. They deal with NASA's programs and also programs that have people that talk about space and the Universe. On one of the shows it had a part dealing with certain light sources that the government wanted to detect to see, if the people were testing bombs in space during WWII. The light source was I believe gamma-rays because of the bombs giving off the light source in that range. It was determined that there were light sources being detected, but not from any place in space from a bomb, but from something else and the energy from this was greater then the energy of the hole Universe. It was mentioned that either it was wrong on the way energy was being assessed or calculated or the size of the Universe is 10x bigger then what they had believed.

The Answer

The search for bombs in space you refer to actually occurred during the height of the cold war, in the 1960s. The United States worried that China or the Soviet Union could explode nuclear weapons in space, hiding this activity from other countries, which would have been a violation of the nuclear test ban treaty. The Vela series of satellites were launched into space to search for gamma-ray emission from such a test in space, even in locations as remote as behind the Moon. No gamma-rays were detected from Earth, but as you know, a number of gamma-ray bursts were detected, and the information gathered from the satellites that observed these events indicated that the bursts occur far from Earth. Explaining the cause of gamma-ray bursts is still an exciting area of research for high-energy astrophysics. You can learn more about this on the Learning Center home pages.

Padi Boyd,
for Imagine the Universe!

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