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Dublin: 25°C Sunday 14 August 2022

The government was worried a Russian nuclear satellite was about to fall on our heads 30 years ago

The Russian satellite Cosmos 1402 was set to fall from the skies in January 1983.

Soyuz_TMA-7_spacecraft2edit1 Source: Wikimedia Commons

A RUSSIAN NUCLEAR satellite falling from the sky had the Irish government slightly concerned in early 1983, according to papers released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule.

The satellite in question, the Cosmos 1402 (which had only been launched the previous August), had fallen into something known as ‘orbital decay’ in January of that year. Effectively that means that, rather than drifting off into space after its mission was completed, it was set to fall to earth instead.

The problem with this was that it was powered by a (very small, but still pretty catastrophic) nuclear reactor. Oh dear.

Much government discussion ensued that month as the satellite meandered in a decreasing orbit toward its final destination.

Vital contact lists were prepared, and briefings were given by the Irish Nuclear Energy Board, who were leading the preparatory efforts.

Generally speaking, the chances of Cosmos landing on our heads were seen as being in the region of 3,000 to one.

1 Source: National Archives file 2016/51/879

To be fair, there was some precedent for the caution seen. In January 1978 one of Cosmos 1402′s forebearers, Cosmos 954, crashed out of orbit and landed in Canada (causing minimal damage). So a landfall was a possibility, if a remote one.

An added issue was that the satellite was a Soviet one – the USSR not being the most forthcoming when it came to sharing details of its technological outputs (as the Chernobyl disaster three years later would showcase). As such any information available was coming from the American side.

And the public were well aware that something was going on, as can be seen by this letter sent by a concerned Co Sligo citizen to the Department of Foreign Affairs on 18 January:

20161207_122425 Source: National Archives file 2016/51/879

Click here to view a larger image

So, contingency plans were made. They mostly consisted of describing what would be needed should the satellite actually pay Ireland a visit, given the remoteness of that possibility:

personnel Source: National Archives file 2016/51/879

As is noted in a memo issued once the danger passed: “it was clear from the outset that we do not have the technical capacity to deal with any largescale nuclear emergency in this country.”

The nuclear issue would once more raise its head in the aftermath of Chernobyl in 1986.

But this was one story that had a (relatively) happy ending – the satellite eventually crashed into the Indian Ocean and left the Emerald Isle in peace:

20161207_122535 Source: National Archives file 2016/51/879

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See National Archives file 2016/51/879

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