Weather satellites transformed forecasting, saving lives, but now rely on solar – not nuclear – power
Weather satellites transformed forecasting in the 1960s. By watching weather systems evolve in real time, meteorologists could predict storms and save lives. But 50 years ago, a nuclear-powered weather satellite threatened disaster. The Nimbus-B, launched on 18 May 1968, was to be the third in its series. The launch went terribly wrong.
An installation fault caused the control system to go haywire, and the rocket carrying Nimbus-B veered in the wrong direction. The satellite had nuclear power packs filled with radioactive plutonium; if Nimbus-B broke up in the atmosphere, it could spread contamination over a wide area.