Why a 1972 Solar Storm Set Off 4,000 Sea Mines in Vietnam—And Why it Matters

The science behind the explosions continues to have implications for human space exploration.

Forty six years ago, a solar storm triggered the explosion of thousands of sea mines in Vietnam, Atlas Obscura reports. Decades later, scientists are still trying to fully realize the implications of the event and the science behind it.

“During the peak of a solar cycle, concentrations of magnetic energy will erupt from the sun and wash towards Earth,” Atlas Obscura explains. “These were so strong that they saturated particle detectors used to measure such events and sent magnetometers off the scale.”

This surge of magnetic energy was exactly what triggered the mines to blow. Deployed by the United States just outside numerous Vietnamese seaports, the explosives were intended to have their magnetic fields be set off by the iron or steel hull of a ship. Instead, the mines went off after the solar flares “distorted the magnetic field of the Earth.”

The ramifications of such a massive transfer of energy from Sun to Earth could haunt long term space exploration by humans. That’s because the typically thin walls of manned spacecraft would be no match for another burst of solar energy and its corresponding radiation, the effects of which could prove extremely harmful—or even deadly—to astronauts exposed to it.

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