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What are the stripes in video of atmospheric atomic bomb tests?

We get asked questions, and we try to answer them.
August 1, 2017
atomic bomb

The stripes are rockets fired to provide a scale.

The trails were used to make a sort of graph paper in the air for recording the propagation of shock waves and wind currents from the explosion.
We have been asked several times, “What are the vertical stripes in videos of atmospheric atomic bomb tests?”

I wondered about this for a long time when I first came to the Museum. The streamers you see in the films of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests are smoke trails made by rockets fired just before the detonation. The trails were used to make a sort of graph paper in the air for recording the propagation of shock waves and wind currents from the explosion.

In a project that echoes the use of smoke trails in atomic tests, Los Alamos is currently working with confetti-like bits of paper, high-definition video cameras, and computers to try to build a three-dimensional model of the turbulence downstream from a wind turbine tower. Researchers are using the multiple points of view and computers to track each individual speck of paper. I think the paper is dispersed upwind of the tower using a sounding rocket and a conventional firework explosive. Some technologies are just too much fun to leave on the shelf.

Gordon McDonough
Science Evangelist