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When we look up into the sky, we don’t often think about things falling down from space onto us, except when we see a meteor streak through the sky. Canada has had its fair share of meteor strikes dating back millions of years thanks to the immense size of our country, but in 1978, something else fell from space, a radioactive satellite named Kosmos 954.
On Sept. 18, 1977, the Kosmos 954 satellite was launched as part of a series of reconnaissance satellites that observed ocean traffic, including nuclear submarines. The satellite was powered by 50 kilograms of Uraniam 235. The satellite orbited the Earth between 259 and 277 kilometres every 89.5 minutes. Under the right conditions, the satellite could track destroyers and aircraft carriers in real time. The satellites under this reconnaissance program were only designed to last a few months before they became non-functional. As a result, the Soviet Union only put these satellites in orbit if they were expecting a large increase in NATO and US naval activity.
The intention was for the satellite to stay in orbit for the long-term but in December of that year, the flightpath of the satellite changed and became increasingly erratic.
By mid-December, the North American Aerospace Defense Command began to notice the satellite making odd movements and changing its orbit altitude by as much as 50 miles. This was because the Soviet operators were trying to control the spacecraft as it began to decay in its orbit.
Amazingly for the Cold War, the Soviets actually contacted the United States about the satellite and held several secret meetings with them. The Soviets also stated that the system should eject its reactor core into a safe disposal orbit but that measure had failed. Of course, no news was released about the possible re-entry to the public as Canada and the United States did not know where it was going to land. It was known eight days before it came down that the satellite would land somewhere in North America. Some officials were worried that due to the uranium on board, there would be worse nuclear contamination than had been seen in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On Jan. 18, with the realization that the satellite would fall months earlier than expected, a secret message was relayed to NATO members, as well as Australia, Japan and New Zealand advising them of the situation.
On Jan. 20, the Canadian Department of Defence warned all its regional commanders and the Nuclear Accident Support Teams across Canada of a possible reentry over Canada.
On Jan. 22, helicopters, radioactivity detectors, trucks, special equipment and more are mobilized at three military bases located in Washington D.C., California and Nevada, ready to go to wherever the spacecraft lands.
In the morning of Jan. 24, 1978 at 6:53 a.m. EST, Kosmos re-entered the atmosphere north of the Queen Charlotte Islands and began tracking across western Canada. Within 70 seconds, it had disintegrated across the sky, spreading its debris across the northern landscape. As it decayed in the atmosphere, the spacecraft wreckage spread across 600-kilometres, hitting the Northwest Territories, present day Nunavut, Alberta and Saskatchewan. About 22 minutes after the satellite crashes, President Jimmy Carter contacts Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to tell him the satellite has crashed in the far north.
The United States immediately offered assistance in the recovery of the satellite, which the Government of Canada accepted. While it may seem that the United States were offering to held their friends to the north, it is more likely they wanted to get their hands on some Soviet space technology. A U2 plane was dispatched and flew over the Canadian Arctic to detect plumes of U-235.
During the day of Jan. 24, the Department of External Affairs expressed to the Soviet Ambassador in Ottawa their surprise that the Canadian government was not given notice about a possible re-entry of the satellite over Canada. The Soviet Ambassador responded that there was not any sizable hazard and that in places of impact, there would be insignificant local pollution. The ambassador also said that it was likely there would be complete destruction of the satellite in orbit.
A group of travellers were in the Northwest Territories, walking in the footsteps of Jack Hornby, a noted Arctic explorer, when they came across a pile of mechanical wreckage. Joking to each other, without knowing what it was, they said it must be a Russian satellite. The military soon arrived in the area and the group was taken in for radiation testing and they soon realized that their joke was actually the truth.
Creating Operation Morning Light, the Canadian government began combing through an area of 124,000 square kilometres using a Canadian-American team that searched on foot, then on air through two phases. The first phase was from Jan. 24, 1978 to April 20, 1978, while phase two began on April 21, 1978 and continued to Oct. 15, 1978. Phase One cost $12 million, while Phase Two cost $1.9 million. Search teams used specially-equipped planes and helicopters that could detect the radiation in the Canadian wilderness. If a fragment was detected, a team was sent out on foot to search the area. Unfortunately, due to the difficult terrain and freezing temperatures, it was often hard for teams to get to the remote areas and sometimes the equipment used to detect the radioactive pieces did not work as planned because of the conditions. For the search teams, the biggest fear was a fuel disk surviving re-entry. A disk would be so radioactive would give a lethal dose to anyone within 1,000 feet. Thankfully, none were found and all were believed to be destroyed in the atmosphere.
Between Jan. 24 and March 25, 608 flyovers of the Canadian North were conducted to find traces of the spacecraft and any radiation. An estimated 120 American personnel moved into Edmonton, which was the headquarters for the search, with Yellowknife becoming the forward base for handling debris and search flights. An estimated 250 Canadian staff, including flight crews, support and maintenance crews, command staff and more took part in the search. A total of 13 Canadian aircraft were also involved in the search effort at its peak. In all, 4,635 flying hours would be conducted.
Interestingly, after several people saw the satellite blow up in the atmosphere and streak across the sky, the news was released by the media that it was a malfunctioning Soviet satellite that was carrying enriched uranium. The mayors in Yellowknife and Fort Smith then asked why the government did not make them aware of the situation.
The first air detection of radioactivity would occur on Jan. 27 when a fragment was found near the mouth of the Hoarfrost River on Great Slave Lake, 27 kilometres north of Fort Reliance. On Jan. 28, an object called the “antlers” was found near Warden’s Grove on the Thelon River were found by naturalists wintering in the area. This was the largest remnant located and the farthest east a fragment was found. On Feb. 12, the first report of particles in the vicinity of Snowdrift would occur, and on Feb. 20, the most radioactive fragment was found and would be recovered four days later.
Through Operation Morning Light, 12 large pieces of the satellite were recovered, including 10 pieces that were radioactive. One of the first pieces was a large section of the satellite that was found by accident by civilians in the Arctic. The radioactivity of these pieces were high, with one fragment having enough radiation coming off it to kill a person who remained in contact with it for a few hours. It is estimated that less than one per cent of the power source of the satellite was recovered. Overall, 4,000 bits of the satellite were recovered throughout 1978. When launched, the satellite weighed about five tons, and 65 kilograms of that was recovered. Several particulate of the satellite were found near Snowdrift Village, home to 400 people.
The Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary, created in 1927, received the greatest amount of larger debris from the satellite, found between the end of January and April 1978. From 1930 onwards, the area has banned all mining activities to protect the life in the park from all discarded waste. It is believed that the caribou that fed on the fungi in the park, and the muskox that fed on the grass there may have been contaminated, as well as dozens of fish species. Great Slave Lake, the ninth largest lake in the world, was the second-largest eco system directly impacted by the satellite debris.
According to Lea Jensen, a resident of the area, the search teams often arrived at settlements where the inhabitants had no idea what they were there for. She says, quote:
She would go on to write about the concerns many in the area had.
“The people of the north were asking themselves what the results of all this radioactivity being spread in such a large area would do. It might just be a scare, or it may prove to be very damaging in the near future. We will all have to wait and see. One thing is for sure, the north has awakened to a new era.”
In a poem written by E.D. Cook called Cosmos Caper, he says, quote:
“So on went the days without any word, nothing was seen, but a lot was heard.”
In meetings with inhabitants of the north, the government advised them to report any metallic debris they came across and to stay away from them. The public was told there was little danger from the radioactive materials.
Naturally, the response across Canada was outrage over the incident. Carl Ribble, writing for the Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia newspaper on Feb. 17, 1978, stated quote:
In a report published in September of 1978, it presented the hypothesis that the reactor core had vaporized and the fine particles were concentrated at the bottom of Great Slave Lake.
In a paper published in the August 1984 issue of Health Physics, it was found that about seven to eight kilograms, about one-quarter of the reactor, had fallen in the form of fine particles of less than one millimeter in diameter. These particles fell like an invisible fog over the Northwest Territories. The remaining three-quarters was a mist that stayed in the atmosphere for years before slowly descending to the planet. By this time, the health risk would have been minimal.
Following the recovery, the Canadian government enacted the terms of the 1972 Space Liability Convention, which states that any nation that launches an object into space is liable for the damages caused by that object. The Soviet union was billed $6 million for the cleanup, or $21 million today. In the end, the Soviet Union only paid half that amount. In arguing against paying the Soviets stated that since the satellite had broken up by the time it fell to Earth, it was no longer recognized as a satellite.
The destruction of the spacecraft would become part of the history and lore of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and Nick Macintosh, a painter in Yellowknife, has created many pieces of art featuring the satellite and well-known local landmarks. In describing the event and his work, he said, quote:
“Its one of those things that happen once every few decades. I’m assuming there’s not a lot of art out there depicting this event in history. It could very well be I’m the only one who has done anything to commemorate this event.”
On Jan. 28, 1978, Saturday Night Live featured a running bit about radioactive debris from the crashed satellite creating giant, mutated lobsters that were heading to the U.S. east coast. The show ended with the lobsters invading the studio.
With the crash of the satellites, the United States quickly put out a call to prohibit satellites containing radioactive material from orbiting the planet. Similar calls came from Canada and countries in Europe. In November of 1978, the United Nations authorized its Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to set up a working group to study nuclear-powered satellites.
The event would also inspire law conversations, including the Jessup International Law Competition held at the University of New Brunswick in 1980. Law students were asked to argue the hypothetical case involving outer space law and the liability for such things as radiation contamination.
In 2007, former employees of the Fort Reliance weather station asked the Canadian government through their lawyers about the transit of the Cosmos 954 waste within their workplace and the risk to anyone who lived there for over two years when they could have been exposed to U-235. The Ministry of Defence responded that, quote:
“The debris had indeed transited via Fort Reliance that they had been stored in adequate containers to avoid external contamination.”
The containers containing the waste would leave Fort Reliance and then be sent, under escort to Edmonton and then Winnipeg.
Health Canada reiterated that from 1980 onwards, no risk could still exist for anyone touching, inhaling or being near the debris.
Nuclear engines are no longer used for satellites, with the Soviet Union launching the last one in 1988, but 30 nuclear-powered satellites still remain, one from the United States and 29 from the Soviet Union. Thankfully, all are above 430 miles and it will take hundreds of thousands years for them to return to Earth, except one. The American satellite SNAP-10A was launched in 1965 to 575 miles but after 43 days it stopped responding. It is currently on a slow trajectory and will crash into the planet in about 3,000 years.
Information comes from Government of Canada, Business Insider, Radio Canada International, Wikipedia, the University of Calgary Gazette, From Danaview to Standard, Space Law, Up Here, The Ubyssey, Robin De Bois.org, FlowJournal, Cosmos 954 The Occurrence and Nature of Recovered Debris