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Photos Of Nuclear Explosion Within 1 Millisecond From Detonation

Photos Of Nuclear Explosion Within 1 Millisecond From Detonation
Nuclear detonation from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s “Tumbler Snapper” test series with a fireball and “rope tricks”. The photo was taken with a Rapatronic camera from EG &G. Since each camera could only make one exposure on a sheet of film, groups of four to 10 cameras were set up to take a series of photos. The average exposure time was three-millionths of a second. The cameras were last used at the test site in 1962. (Source: Wikipedia; Credit: U.S. Air Force 1352nd Photographic Group, Lookout Mountain Station)

The photos of the first millisecond of a nuclear detonation were taken using a rapatronic camera, which is capable of recording still images with exposure times as short as 10 nanoseconds. To put this into perspective, most modern cameras can take photos with exposure times of 1/8000 of a second, equal to 125 microseconds, meaning rapatronic cameras are up to 12,000 times faster than standard ones.

The photos were taken during the Tumbler-Snapper performed in Nevada circa 1952 from 7 miles away. In the first image, the fireball is about 20 m (66 ft) in diameter. The spikes at the bottom are known as the “rope trick” effect, and we can also observe a mottled surface.

A rapatronic photo from operation Hardtack/Lea (Source: Wikipedia; Credit: Federal government of the United States)
Rockets carrying instruments for scientific measurements as part of Operation Fishbowl – high-altitude nuclear testing – are shown on Johnston Island before launch. The photo was taken in mid-1962. The exact date is unknown. (Source: Wikipedia; Credit: United States Government Defense Nuclear Agency).
Screenshot from smithsonianchannel.com. (Source: Wikipedia)
Screenshot from smithsonianchannel.com. (Source: Wikipedia)
Redwing Mohawk 360 from July 2, 1956 (Source: Wikipedia; Credit: Federal Government of the United States).

The “Rope Trick” Effect

The “rope trick” is caused by the heating, rapid vaporization, and then expansion of guy wires (or specialized rope trick test cables) that extend from the shot cab, the housing at the top of the tower that contains the explosive device, to the ground.

A physicist named John Malik observed this effect when the rope was painted black, spike formation was enhanced, and if it was painted with reflective paint or wrapped in aluminium foil, no spikes were observed – thus confirming the hypothesis that it is the heating and vaporization of the rope, induced by exposure to high-intensity visible light radiation that causes the effect.

Clearly visible “rope trick” effect (Source: Wikipedia; Credit: Federal Government of the United States).

Because of the lack of guy wires, no “rope tricks” effects were observed in surface detonation tests, free-flying weapons tests, or underground tests.

Mottled Surface Explained

The reason for surface mottling is more complicated. Thermal x-rays emitted by the detonation process form a fireball around the bomb in the first microseconds after the explosion. The bomb is expanding inside the radiative fireball as a result of the heat generated by the nuclear reactions.

This generates a hydrodynamic shock wave that travels at supersonic speeds outward. This shock front reaches and then passes the radiative fireball after a brief duration. The shock front is roughly twice its size at the point of the explosion depicted in the shot above.


  1. Rapatronic camera. (2021, July 11). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapatronic_camera.
  2. Nuclear explosion. (2022, November 4). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_explosion.

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Matic Broz

Matic Broz is a photographer, graphic designer, and stock photographer. For over ten years he's been helping photographers improve their photos and graphic designers find the best images for their designs. His work has been featured by Lifewire, Skylum, and PetaPixel. In his free time, he enjoys photography, hiking, and petting random dogs. Read more

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