The Trinity Test

The "Trinity" test was the first test of a nuclear weapon, conducted by the United States on July 16, 1945 at 33.675° N 106.475° W, thirty miles (48 km) southeast of Socorro on what is now White Sands Missile Range, headquartered near Alamogordo, New Mexico. It was a test of an implosion-design plutonium bomb, the same type of weapon later dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The detonation was equivalent to the explosion of around 20 kilotons of TNT, and is usually credited as the beginning of the Atomic Age.

The creation of nuclear weapons arose out of political and scientific developments of the late 1930s. The rise of fascist governments in Europe and new discoveries about the nature of atoms converged in the plans of the United States and the United Kingdom to develop powerful weapons using nuclear fission as their primary source of energy. The Manhattan Project, as the Allied effort was called, culminated in the test of a nuclear weapon at what is now called Trinity site in July 1945, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few weeks later.

While U.S. and British efforts to investigate the feasibility of nuclear weapons began as early as 1939, the effort at development only began in earnest in 1942 when it was transferred under the authority of the U.S. Army and became the Manhattan Project. The project focused on the development of fissile material to power the nuclear chain reactions which took place inside the weapons, and the design of the weapons themselves at the top-secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico.

From January 1944 to July 1945, the large-scale production plants were set in operation, and the fissile material thus produced was used to determine the features of the weapons. Multipronged research was undertaken to follow several angles of attack against the problem of bomb design. Early decisions about weapon design had been based on minute quantities of uranium-235 (enriched uranium) and plutonium created in pilot plants and laboratory cyclotrons. From these results it was thought that the creation of a bomb was as simple as shooting one piece of fissile material into another to form a critical mass.

The production of uranium-235 proved to be quite difficult with existing technology, but the production of plutonium was comparatively easier, as it was a by-product of specially constructed nuclear reactors, the first of which was developed by Enrico Fermi only in 1942. Reactor-grade plutonium, however, was considerably less pure than cyclotron-produced plutonium, and the presence of another isotope of plutonium in the resulting product meant that the simple "gun type" model of bomb design would not work: the presence of extra neutrons meant that the weapon would pre-detonate with a greatly reduced yield. This problem, when discovered in 1942, led to a redesign of the plutonium bomb towards the idea of "implosion", by which a spherical core of plutonium would be compressed using conventional explosives, which would increase its density and thus create a critical mass.

The problem was then to construct a weapon which would precisely compress the plutonium sphere on all sides exactly equally—any error would result in a "fizzle" which would simply eject the valuable plutonium and not result in a large explosion. Because of the difficulties in creating the explosive lenses for perfect compression using the existing technology, it was decided by Manhattan Project military leader General Leslie Groves and scientific director J. Robert Oppenheimer that a test of the concept would have to be undertaken before a weapon could be confidently used in war conditions.

Planning for the test itself was assigned to Kenneth Bainbridge, a professor of physics at Harvard University, working under explosives expert George Kistiakowsky. A proper site had to be located that would guarantee secrecy of the project's goals even as it planned to detonate a nuclear weapon of unknown strength, proper scientific equipment had to be assembled for retrieving data from the test itself, and safety guidelines had to be developed to protect project personnel from the results of an unknown and highly dangerous experiment. Official test photographer Berlyn Brixner set up dozens of cameras to capture the event on film.

The site was part of the Alamogordo Bombing Range, now the White Sands Missile Range. The test site is at the northern end of the range, between the towns of Carrizozo and Socorro, New Mexico, in the Jornada del Muerto in the southwestern United States (33.675° N 106.475° W).

The exact origin of the name is unknown, but it is often attributed to laboratory leader J. Robert Oppenheimer as a reference to the poetry of John Donne. Oppenheimer had been exposed to Donne primarily through his former girlfriend Jean Tatlock, who had committed suicide in July 1944. In 1962, General Leslie Groves wrote to Oppenheimer on the origin of the name, asking if he had chosen it on the basis that it was a name common to rivers and peaks in the West and would not attract attention. "I did suggest it, but not on [that] ground... Why I chose the name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation: 'As West and East / In all flatt Maps—and I am one—are on, / So death doth touch the Resurrection.'" ("Hymn to God My God, in My Sicknesses"). Oppenheimer continued, "That still does not make a Trinity, but in another, better known devotional poem Donne opens, 'Batter my heart, three person'd God;—.' Beyond this, I have no clues whatever." (Holy Sonnets XIV).

Betting pools were set up among the observers for the results of the test. Some predictions ranged from zero, a dud, to 18 kilotons of TNT (predicted by I. I. Rabi), to destruction of the state of New Mexico, to ignition of the atmosphere and incineration of the planet (fortunately, this result was calculated to be almost impossible beforehand, though for a while it caused some of the scientists some anxiety). As it turned out, Rabi won the bet.

There was a pretest explosion of 108 tons of TNT on May 7 to calibrate the instrumentation. (Since then, nuclear detonation yields have been measured in units of tons of TNT equivalent, or the equivalent of that many tons of TNT.) For the actual test, the plutonium-core nuclear weapon, nicknamed The gadget, was hoisted on the top of a 20-meter steel tower for detonation — the height would give a better indication of what the weapon would be like when dropped from an airplane, as detonation in the air would maximize the amount of energy applied directly to the target (as it expanded in a spherical shape), and would kick up the least nuclear fallout.

The "gadget" was assembled at the nearby McDonald Ranch House, the components arriving on July 12. It was assembled on the 13th and precariously winched up the tower the following day. In case of failure, a huge steel canister code-named "Jumbo" was prepared to recover the valuable plutonium at the order of General Groves. Weighing 240 tons, "Jumbo" was meant to contain the explosion from the 5 tons of conventional explosives used to compress the plutonium in case the chain reaction failed. At great expense, "Jumbo" was constructed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and brought out to the test site by rail, but by the time it arrived the confidence of the scientists was high enough that they decided not to use it. It was instead hoisted up in a steel tower 800 yards (730 m) from the "gadget", as a rough measure of how powerful it would be. In the end, "Jumbo" survived, though its tower did not.

The detonation was initially planned for 4:00 a.m. but was postponed due to rain and lightning from early that morning. Under conditions of rain it was feared that the danger from radiation and fallout would be greatly increased, and the lightning put the scientists on edge about the possibility of an accidental detonation.

At 4:45 a.m. a crucial weather report came in favorably, and at 5:10 a.m. the twenty-minute countdown began. Most of the top-level scientists and military officers were observing from a base camp, ten miles (16 km) southwest of the test tower. Many other observers were around twenty miles (32 km) away, and some others were scattered at different distances, some in more informal situations (physicist Richard Feynman claimed to be the only person to see the explosion without the dark glasses provided, relying on a truck windshield to screen out harmful ultraviolet wavelengths). The final countdown was read by physicist Samuel K. Allison.

At 05:29:45 local time (Mountain War Time), the device exploded with an energy equivalent to around 19 kilotons of TNT (87.5 TJ). It left a crater of radioactive glass in the desert 3 meters (10 feet) deep and 330 meters (1,100 feet) wide. At the time of detonation, the surrounding mountains were illuminated brighter than daytime for one to two seconds, and the heat was reported as being as hot as an oven at the base camp. The observed colors of the illumination ranged from purple, to green, and eventually to white. The roar of the shock wave took 40 seconds to reach the observers.[3] The shock wave was felt over 160 km (100 miles) away, and the mushroom cloud reached 12 km (7.5 miles). As Los Alamos director J. Robert Oppenheimer watched the demonstration, he later said that a line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita came to mind:

"I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Variants on this quotation exist, both by Oppenheimer and by others. A more common translation of the passage, from Arthur Ryder (from whom Oppenheimer studied Sanskrit at UC Berkeley in the 1930s), is:

Death am I, and my present task
Destruction. (11:32)[5]

Since the Gita's first translation into English in 1785, most experts have translated not "Death" but instead "Time". A further elaboration of the supposed Oppenheimer quote often cited is taken from Robert Jungk's 1958 Brighter than a Thousand Suns:

If the radiance of a thousand suns
were to burst into the sky,
that would be like
the splendor of the Mighty One—
I am become Death, the shatterer of Worlds.

Test director Kenneth Bainbridge was said to have replied, "Now we are all sons of bitches." According to Oppenheimer's brother, Frank, at the time of the test Robert simply said, "It worked."

News reports quoted a forest ranger 150 miles (240 km) west of the site as saying he saw "a flash of fire followed by an explosion and black smoke." A New Mexican 150 miles (240 km) north said, "The explosion lighted up the sky like the sun." Other reports remarked that windows were rattled up to 200 miles (320 km) away and the sound of the explosion could be heard at just as great a distance.

In the crater the desert sand, which is largely made of silica, melted and became glass of a light green color and mildly radioactive; this was named Trinitite. The crater was filled in soon after the test. The Alamagordo Air Base issued a 50-word press release noting "an explosion of a remotely located ammunitions dump, in which no one had been killed or injured." The actual cause was not publicly acknowledged until after the August 6 attack on Hiroshima. The Manhattan Project's official journalist, William L. Laurence, had previously put multiple press releases on file with his office at the New York Times to be released in case of an emergency, ranging from a successful test (the one which was used) to more macabre scenarios explaining why all of the scientists had perished in a single freak accident.

Around 260 personnel were present, none closer than 9 km. At the next test series, Operation Crossroads in 1946, over 40,000 people were present.

The results of the test were conveyed to President Harry S Truman and were used by him as leverage in his negotiations with the Soviet Union at the Potsdam Conference. Truman was, however, somewhat shocked by Joseph Stalin's lack of response when he told him in private about the weapon; Stalin was already well aware of the American endeavor — through espionage.

Following the success of the Trinity test, two bombs were prepared for use against Japan. The first, dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, was code-named "Little Boy", and used uranium-235 as its fission source. It was an untested model, but seemed very likely to work and was considerably more simplistic in design than the implosion model; in any event, it could not be tested as there was only enough uranium-235 for one bomb. The second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, was code-named "Fat Man", and was a plutonium bomb of the type tested at the Trinity test. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed at least 120,000 people outright and many more over time, but were credited by many internationally credible sources for saving many more lives in the long run. (See Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for information on this historical question and the controversy that surrounds it.)

The information about the Trinity test was made public shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima. The Smyth Report, released on August 12, 1945, gave some information on the blast, and the hardbound edition released by Princeton University Press a few weeks later contained the famous "bulbous" pictures of the Trinity fireball. Oppenheimer and Groves posed for reporters near the remains of the mangled test tower shortly after the war. In the years after the test, the pictures have become a potent symbol of the beginning of the so-called "atomic age", and the test has often been featured in popular culture.

On December 21, 1965, Trinity Site was declared a National Historic Landmark district, and was administratively listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. The public is admitted on the first Saturdays of April and October. More than fifty years after the test, there is still a little residual radiation at the site, about ten times higher than normal. Officials maintain that the amount of exposure received during a one-hour visit is far less than that received from eating food and being exposed to the sun. The Trinity monument, a rough-sided, lava rock obelisk around 12 ft (3.65 m) high, marks the explosion's hypocenter, and "Jumbo" is still kept nearby. The site is still a reasonably popular destination for those interested in atomic tourism. On July 16, 2005, a special tour of the site was conducted to mark the 60th anniversary of the Trinity test.Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home