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In the early morning hours (Eastern Standard Time) of March 23, 2001, the Russian space station Mir tore apart during a planned reentry over the Southern Pacific Ocean, ending roughly 15 years of service as perhaps the premier manned human presence in space. That’s not bad for a spacecraft designed to last only five years when it first launched in 1986.

Three years after Mir finally, deliberately, and violently returned to Earth with nary an injury or property damage to its credit, it’s worth noting how inexact the science behind “planned” reentry truly is. Perhaps the most famous example of the random chance involved in deorbiting a spacecraft is the tale of the U.S. space station Skylab, which fell to Earth on July 12, 1979.

Skylab got off to a rocky start, with portions of its shielding tearing away during its launch on May 14, 1973. Unable to properly deploy its solar panels, Skylab required a manned repair mission simply to get its basic power supply back online.

Despite this early setback, Skylab hosted multiple capsule-launched crews and performed several experiments before its retirement in 1974. NASA guided the station into a long-term orbit, where it expected the station to safely remain for years until authorities decided how to dispose of the craft or reactivate it when the proposed space shuttle program came online.

But Skylab’s orbit did not prove stable. In 1979, it made a largely uncontrolled reentry that saw portions of the station fall to the earth in a sparsely populated region of western Australia.

Sparsely populated, however, does not mean unpopulated, and Skylab’s debris showered the small town of Esperance. While this caused no lasting harm, it did result in local authorities slapping the U.S. State Department with a $400 fine for littering.

While the fine may seem comical, Canadian authorities imposed a much larger sum—measured in millions of dollars—on the Soviet Union the year before in retribution for a far more dangerous uncontrolled reentry of a spacecraft.


What unplanned spacecraft reentry resulted in Canada imposing a multimillion-dollar fine against the Soviet Union in the late 1970s?

On Jan. 24, 1978, remnants of the Soviet intelligence satellite Cosmos 954 impacted a remote arctic portion of Canada’s Northwest Territory, spreading radioactive debris, which prompted Canadian officials to fine the Soviet Union a negotiated sum of $3 million (Canadian).

Cosmos 954 was a naval spy satellite, and its intense orbital radar systems required an active nuclear reactor with 100 pounds of radioactive fuel as a power supply. Under normal conditions, the short-lived satellite would have jettisoned its reactor into a safe, centuries-long “burial orbit” before the remainder of the craft would have guided into a controlled deorbit.

But in reality, Cosmos 954 malfunctioned badly—hitting the atmosphere with its reactor still onboard and threatening to carry deadly radiation on any portions of the craft that failed to burn up during reentry.

Once officials confirmed impact in Canadian territory, government authorities launched a desperate cleanup mission dubbed Operation Morning Light. Aided by scientists from the U.S. Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Canadian officials recovered several satellite fragments from a 15,000-square mile impact footprint, all of which required observing nuclear safety protocols and dealing with extremely cold temperatures.

The Canadian government demanded that the Soviet Union pay for the costs of this daunting mission and proposed a figure at which the Soviets initially balked. It took three years of official negotiations before both the Canadian and Soviet governments could agree on the terms—and monetary figure—of the Soviet Union’s restitution for the Cosmos 954 incident. On April 2, 1981, both countries signed a protocol that established the $3 million fine.

In 1983, another Soviet nuclear satellite, Cosmos 1402, suffered a similar malfunction that threatened to crash nuclear materials in Southern California. However, Soviet controllers were able to avert disaster on this occasion, guiding the falling satellite into the ocean. Russia has since ceased to use nuclear reactors to power its satellites.

The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

The Trivia Geek owes an apology to all students, faculty, staff, and alumni of Texas State University-San Marcos, which I incorrectly referred to as Southwest Texas State University in the March 10 edition of Geek Trivia, “Stars of the (art)show.” Reader Cr1s correctly pointed out my mistake:

“As of 9/1/03, Southwest Texas State University was renamed [to] Texas State University-San Marcos. I don’t know when the research was conducted, or if the author of the article made the mistake—just thought you should know.”

No excuses—this was my fault. I used dated source materials, and I didn’t think to check the school’s own Web site for any relevant current details.