VELA Nuclear Detector Satellite Model SOLD A1041

The Vela satellite was designed to monitor nuclear tests, and had a long career not without controversy. The original may be space junk by now but we consider this beauty a space age treasure. Steel, 14″ tall on 7″ square wooden base. Lovely condition.

Price on request.

Vela (satellite)

The Vela-5A/B Satellite in its cleanroom. The two satellites, A and B, were separated after launch.

Vela was the name of a group of satellites developed as the Vela Hotel element of Project Vela by the United States to monitor compliance with the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty by the Soviet Union.

Vela started out as a small budget research program in 1959. It ended 26 years later as a successful, cost-effective military space system, which also provided scientific data on natural sources of space radiation. In the 1970s, the nuclear detection mission was taken over by the Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites. In the late 1980s, it was augmented by the Navstar Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. The program is now called the Integrated Operational Nuclear Detection System (IONDS).


The total number of satellites built was 12, six of the Vela Hotel design and six of the Advanced Vela design. The Vela Hotel series was to detect nuclear initiations in space, while the Advanced Vela series was to detect not only nuclear explosions in space but also in the atmosphere.

All spacecraft were manufactured by TRW and launched in pairs, either on an Atlas-Agena or Titan III-C boosters. They were placed in orbits of 118,000 km (73,000 miles), well above the Van Allen radiation belts. Their apogee was about one-third of the distance to the Moon. The first Vela Hotel pair was launched on October 17, 1963, one week after the Partial Test Ban Treaty went into effect, and the last in 1965. They had a design life of six months, but were actually shut down after five years. Advanced Vela pairs were launched in 1967, 1969 and 1970. They had a nominal design life of 18 months, later changed to 7 years. However, the last satellite to be shut down was Vehicle 9 in 1984, which had been launched in 1969 and had lasted nearly 15 years.

Controversial observation

Main article: Vela Incident

Some controversy still surrounds the Vela program since on 22 September 1979 the Vela 6911 satellite detected the characteristic double flash of an atmospheric nuclear explosion near the Prince Edward Islands. Still unsatisfactorily explained, this event has become known as the Vela Incident. President Jimmy Carter initially deemed the event to be evidence of a joint Israeli and South African nuclear test, though the now-declassified report of a scientific panel he subsequently appointed while seeking reelection concluded that it was probably not the event of a nuclear explosion. An alternative explanation involves a magnetospheric event affecting the instruments.

Role of Vela in discovering gamma-ray bursts

On July 2, 1967, at 14:19 UTC, the Vela 4 and Vela 3 satellites detected a flash of gamma radiation unlike any known nuclear weapons signature. Uncertain what had happened but not considering the matter particularly urgent, the team at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, led by Ray Klebesadel, filed the data away for investigation. As additional Vela satellites were launched with better instruments, the Los Alamos team continued to find inexplicable gamma-ray bursts in their data. By analyzing the different arrival times of the bursts as detected by different satellites, the team was able to determine rough estimates for the sky positions of sixteen bursts and definitively rule out a terrestrial or solar origin. The discovery was declassified and published in 1973 as an Astrophysical Journal article entitled “Observations of Gamma-Ray Bursts of Cosmic Origin”. This alerted the astronomical community to the existence of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), now recognised as the most violent events in the universe.