On March 5, 1979, several months after dropping probes into the toxic atmosphere of Venus, two Soviet spacecraft, Venera 11 and 12, were drifting through the inner solar system on an elliptical orbit. It had been an uneventful cruise. The radiation readings on board both probes hovered around a nominal 100 counts per second. But at 10:51 a.m. EST, a pulse of gamma radiation hit them. Within a fraction of a millisecond, the radiation level shot above 200,000 counts per second and quickly went off scale.
Eleven seconds later gamma rays swamped the NASA space probe Helios 2, also orbiting the sun. A plane wave front of high-energy radiation was evidently sweeping through the solar system. It soon reached Venus and saturated the Pioneer Venus Orbiter¿s detector. Within seconds the gamma rays reached Earth. They flooded detectors on three U.S. Department of Defense Vela satellites, the Soviet Prognoz 7 satellite, and the Einstein Observatory. Finally, on its way out of the solar system, the wave also blitzed the International Sun-Earth Explorer.
This article was originally published with the title Magnetars.