The Vela-5A/B Satellite in its cleanroom. The two satellites, A and B, were separated after launch. Image/wikipedia.com
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) this month commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the Vela satellite launch, the U.S.’s first treaty monitoring satellite. The purpose of Vela was to monitor compliance with the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, a cornerstone arms control treaty which prohibits nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water.
“The Vela Project is a great success story,” said NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Anne Harrington. “Vela and the continuing Space Nuclear Detonation Detection mission exemplify nuclear nonproliferation efforts to limit the threat of nuclear weapons around the world.”
The original Vela contract called for 10 satellites at the cost of $15 million. The first six satellites were so successful, reliable and durable that the last four were never launched. In 1965, the Department of Defense approved an advanced Vela program equipped with more capable detectors, including optical flash detectors. Overall, twelve Vela satellites were launched—the last pair on April 8, 1970.
The instruments aboard the Vela satellites provided significant scientific data. Examples include the first measurements that lead to the discovery of naturally occurring gamma ray bursts, data on trapped radiation within the Earth’s magnetosphere, and data on major lightening storms and bolides.
The Space Nuclear Detonation Detection mission continues with systems aboard Air Force GPS and Defense Support Program platforms. The last of the advanced Vela satellites was deliberately turned off on Sept. 27, 1984—more than 15 years after the first satellites were launched.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was assigned overall responsibility for the satellite development project. DARPA established the Vela Satellite Program Office within the SMC (then Air Force Ballistic Missile Division) to manage the satellite development contract. At the same time, NNSA’s precursor, the Atomic Energy Commission, began developing the payload detectors at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories. Four years later, on Oct. 17, 1963, the Air Force Space Systems Division launched the first pair of Vela Hotel satellites from Cape Canaveral.
NNSA, the national laboratories and the Air Force will continue to work together to employ advanced technologies for nuclear detonation detection instruments that improve system performance while reducing overall cost. Future systems will collect more data, process information faster and improve discrimination, requiring fewer platforms to monitor the globe for nuclear events.