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Operation Argus

Operation Argus
Country United States
Test site South Atlantic Ocean
Period 1958
Number of tests 3
Test type space rocket (> 80 km)
Max. yield 1.5 kilotonnes of TNT (6.3 TJ)
Previous test series Operation Hardtack I
Next test series Operation Hardtack II

Operation Argus was a series of United States nuclear weapons tests and missile tests secretly conducted during August and September 1958 over the South Atlantic Ocean. They were performed by the Defense Nuclear Agency, in conjunction with the Explorer 4 space mission. Operation Argus was conducted between the nuclear test series Operation Hardtack I and Operation Hardtack II. Contractors from Lockheed Aircraft Corporation as well as a few personnel and contractors from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission were on hand as well.


  • Objectives 1
  • Task Force 88 2
  • The satellites 3
  • Tests 4
  • List of Argus launches 5
  • List of ships involved in Operation Argus 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


The tests were proposed by Nicholas Christofilos of what was then the Livermore branch of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) as a means to verify the Christofilos effect, which argued that high-altitude nuclear detonations would create a radiation belt in the extreme upper regions of the Earth's atmosphere. Such belts would be similar in effect to the Van Allen radiation belts. Such radiation belts were viewed as having possible tactical use in war. Prior to Argus, Hardtack Teak had shown disruption of radio communications from a nuclear blast, though this was not due to the creation of radiation belts.

Argus was implemented rapidly after inception due to forthcoming bans on atmospheric and exoatmospheric testing. Consequently, the tests were conducted within a mere half year of conception (whereas "normal" testing took one to two years).[1]

  • Two missiles, with warheads 136–227 kg to be launched within one month of each other, originating from a single site.
  • The missiles were to be detonated at altitudes of 200–1,000 mi, and also at 2,000–4,000 miles. Both detonations should occur near the geomagnetic equator.
  • Satellites were to be placed in equatorial (up to 30°) and polar (up to 70°) orbits, with perigees of roughly 322 kilometres (200 mi) and apogees of roughly 2,900 kilometres (1,800 mi) or greater. These satellites were to be used to measure electron density over time, and include a magnetometer, as well as a means for measuring ambient radio noise. Measurements were to be taken before the shots to determine a baseline, as well as during and after the events.
  • Sounding rockets, fired from appropriate ground locations, were to carry the same instrumentation as the satellites, except for radio noise. Ground stations to be used to study effects on radio astronomy and radar probing as well as auroral measurements.

Originally Argus was designated Hardtack-Argus, and later Floral. For reasons of security, both names were dropped in favor of the independent name Argus.

Funding was provided by the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (AFSWP), the predecessor of today's Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). Total funds allotted for the project were US$ 9,023,000.

Task Force 88

Path of TF-88 during August and September, 1958.

The leukemia claims among TF-88 participants to the Veterans Administration. Because of this, it has been difficult to resolve just how much radiation participants were exposed to.

USS Norton Sound was responsible for missile-launching functions. She also served as a training facility for crews involved in the testing. The X-17A missiles to be used in the test were unfamiliar to those conducting the tests. Exercises including assembly and repair of dummy missiles were conducted aboard Norton Sound. She also carried a 27-MHz COZI radar, which was operated by Air Force Cambridge Research Center, which was used to monitor effects of the shots.

USS Albemarle, fresh out of an overhaul, was not listed on the TF-88 order. She set out to the Atlantic, supposedly on shakedown. She, too, mounted a COZI radar and other instrumentation for detecting man-made ionization.

USS Tarawa served as overall command of the operation, with her commander serving as Task Group Commander. She carried an Air Force MSQ-1A radar and communication system for missile tracking. She also housed VS-32 aircraft for search and security operations as well as scientific measurement, photographic, and observer missions for each shot. HS-5 was also aboard and provided intra-task-force transportation for personnel and cargo.

USS Warrington, in conjunction with Bearss, Hammerberg, and Courtney maintained a weather picket 463 km west of the task force, provided a plane guard for Tarawa during flight operations, and carried out standard destroyer functions (such as surface security and search and rescue). Warrington also carried equipment for launching Loki Dart rockets.

USS Neosho refueled task force ships during the operation. She was also outfitted with Air Force MSQ-1A radar. Her commanding officer also served as the flagship for TG 88.3, the Mobile Logistics Group, consisted of: Neosho, equipped with USAF MSQ-1 radar and communication vans, USS Salamonie (AO-26), and assigned destroyers.

USS Salamonie returned to the United States upon arrival at TF-88, and did not participate in any shots.

The satellites

Two satellite launches were attempted. Explorer 4 was successfully launched on July 26. Explorer 5 suffered a launch failure on August 24.


One of the modified X-17A missiles launches from the USS Norton Sound as part of Operation Argus.

About 1800 km southwest of Cape Town, South Africa, USS Norton Sound launched three modified X-17A missiles armed with 1.7 kt W-25 nuclear warheads into the upper atmosphere, where high altitude nuclear explosions took place. Due to the South Atlantic Anomaly, the Van Allen radiation belt is closer to the Earth's surface at that location. The (extreme) altitude of the tests was chosen so as to prevent personnel involved in the test from being exposed to any ionizing radiation.[2]

Coordinated measurement programs involving satellite, rocket, aircraft, and surface stations were employed by the services as well as other government agencies and various contractors worldwide.

The Argus explosions created artificial electron belts resulting from the β-decay of fission fragments. These lasted for several weeks. Such radiation belts affect radio and radar transmissions, damage or destroy arming and fusing mechanisms of intercontinental ballistic missile warheads, and endanger crews of orbiting space vehicles.

Argus proved the validity of Christofilos' theory: the establishment of an electron shell derived from neutron and β-decay of fission products and ionization of device materials in the upper atmosphere was demonstrated. It not only provided data on military considerations, but produced a "great mass" of geophysical data.

The tests were first reported by the New York Times on March 19, 1959, headlining it as the "greatest scientific experiment ever conducted." Approximately nine ships and 4,500 people participated in the operation. After the completion of testing, the task force returned to the United States via Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The tests were announced the following year, but the full results and documentation of the tests were not declassified until April 30, 1982.

List of Argus launches[3]

United States' Argus series tests and detonations
Name [note 1] Date time (UT) Local time zone [note 2][4] Location [note 3] Elevation + height [note 4] Delivery [note 5]
Purpose [note 6]
Device [note 7] Yield [note 8] Fallout [note 9] References Notes
1 27 August 1958 02:28:?? WET (0 hrs)
Launch from South Atlantic Ocean , elv: 0 + 0 m (0 + 0 ft);
Detonation over South Atlantic Ocean
N/A + 170 kilometres (110 mi) space rocket (> 80 km),
weapon effect
W-25 1.5 kt [5][6][7][8][9][10]
2 30 August 1958 03:18:?? WET (0 hrs)
Launch from South Atlantic Ocean , elv: 0 + 0 m (0 + 0 ft);
Detonation over South Atlantic Ocean
N/A + 310 kilometres (190 mi) space rocket (> 80 km),
weapon effect
W-25 1.5 kt [5][6][7][8][9][10]
3 6 September 1958 22:13:?? WET (0 hrs)
Launch from South Atlantic Ocean , elv: 0 + 0 m (0 + 0 ft);
Detonation over South Atlantic Ocean
N/A + 794 kilometres (493 mi) space rocket (> 80 km),
weapon effect
W-25 1.5 kt [5][6][7][8][9][10]
  1. ^ The US, France and Great Britain have code-named their test events, while the USSR and China did not, and therefore have only test numbers (with some exceptions – Soviet peaceful explosions were named). Word translations into English in parentheses unless the name is a proper noun. A dash followed by a number indicates a member of a salvo event. The US also sometimes named the individual explosions in such a salvo test, which results in "name1 – 1(with name2)". If test is canceled or aborted, then the row data like date and location discloses the intended plans, where known.
  2. ^ To convert the UT time into standard local, add the number of hours in parentheses to the UT time; for local daylight saving time, add one additional hour. If the result is earlier than 00:00, add 24 hours and subtract 1 from the day; if it is 24:00 or later, subtract 24 hours and add 1 to the day. All historical timezone data are derived from here:
  3. ^ Rough place name and a latitude/longitude reference; for rocket-carried tests, the launch location is specified before the detonation location, if known. Some locations are extremely accurate; others (like airdrops and space blasts) may be quite inaccurate. "~" indicates a likely pro-forma rough location, shared with other tests in that same area.
  4. ^ Elevation is the ground level at the point directly below the explosion relative to sea level; height is the additional distance added or subtracted by tower, balloon, shaft, tunnel, air drop or other contrivance. For rocket bursts the ground level is "N/A". In some cases it is not clear if the height is absolute or relative to ground, for example, Plumbbob/John. No number or units indicates the value is unknown, while "0" means zero. Sorting on this column is by elevation and height added together.
  5. ^ Atmospheric, airdrop, balloon, gun, cruise missile, rocket, surface, tower, and barge are all disallowed by the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Sealed shaft and tunnel are underground, and remained useful under the PTBT. Intentional cratering tests are borderline; they occurred under the treaty, were sometimes protested, and generally overlooked if the test was declared to be a peaceful use.
  6. ^ Include weapons development, weapon effects, safety test, transport safety test, war, science, joint verification and industrial/peaceful, which may be further broken down.
  7. ^ Designations for test items where known, "?" indicates some uncertainty about the preceding value, nicknames for particular devices in quotes. This category of information is often not officially disclosed.
  8. ^ Estimated energy yield in tons, kilotons, and megatons. A ton of TNT equivalent is defined as 4.184 gigajoules (1 gigacalorie).
  9. ^ Radioactive emission to the atmosphere aside from prompt neutrons, where known. The measured species is only iodine-131 if mentioned, otherwise it is all species. No entry means unknown, probably none if underground and "all" if not; otherwise notation for whether measured on the site only or off the site, where known, and the measured amount of radioactivity released.

List of ships involved in Operation Argus

See also


  1. ^ Defense Nuclear Agency. Report DNA 6039F. "Operation Argus 1958" Nuclear Test Personnel Review. 1982 [1] Retrieved 1 June 2010.
  2. ^ U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency. DTRA Fact Sheets, "Operation Argus." November 2006. [2]. Retrieved 1 June 2010.
  3. ^ Johnston, William Robert. "High-Altitude Nuclear Explosions." 7 November 2006.
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c
  6. ^ a b c
  7. ^ a b c
  8. ^ a b c
  9. ^ a b c
  10. ^ a b c

Further reading

  • Chun, Lt. Col. Clayton K. S. Shooting down a "Star": Program 437, the US Nuclear ASAT System and Present-Day Copycat Killers. College of Aerospace Doctrine Research and Education. April, 2000, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

External links

  • The short film Project Argus 'Greatest Experiment': 3 A-Blasts In Space, 1959/03/19 (1959) is available for free download at the Internet Archive
  • Operation Argus film by US government (45:26)
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