Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C
1984 State Papers

In 1983 there was a chance a Soviet spy satellite would fall on Ireland

There was one in 10,000 chance nuclear-powered Cosmo 1402 would fall over Ireland.

OF ALL THE things to be worried about in 1983, the chance that a Soviet surveillance satellite would fall from the sky over Ireland was one of them.

Reports surfaced that a spy satellite Cosmo 1402 was malfunctioning was a huge cause of serious concern to the Irish Government, but it wasn’t easy to get answers from Moscow.

Crash landing 

A document released under the 30 year rule states that it was not known at the time where the satellite would land, but there was a one in 10,000 chance that it would fall over Ireland.

Initially, the Soviets denied all reports that one of their satellites was in trouble and said that nothing was wrong. They then claimed that it had already landed, and the third claim was that they had broken it up so that it would burn up in the atmosphere.

An excerpt from an Associated Press article dated 6 January 1983 reads:

The Pentagon says [the nuclear-powered satellite] could spread destruction and radioactivity if its broken pieces fall in a populated area. It is too early to say where it will hit.

‘Out of control’

The US Embassy telephoned the Irish Government and said that the reports were correct, the nuclear-powered satellite was acting erratically and that it was likely it would land “out of control” by the end of the month.

The US Ambassador also said that the US would provide assistance to any country that needed it.

Most of the globe was on alert, with many countries mobilising helicopters, ships and army units prepared to look for radioactive debris.

In all the uncertainty, the Irish Government scrambled to find out as much information they could about the satellite and tried to put plans in place should the satellite crash land in Ireland.

Information about the satellite, like what was it’s power system and what was on board was the major concern.

A state paper shows that they were anxious to know what they were dealing with – was Uranium or Plutonium on board?


“It would be essential to know the nature and amount of the nuclear material, so that it could be handled properly,” said one document, with another brief stating that asking the Soviets would have to be done carefully.

…any approach to the Soviet authorities would be a politically sensitive matter. We might not wish to be the first to appear to act on the basis of US reports. The whole of Europe could equally be in danger, but an approach on a European basis might nto be possible for political reasons.

Ireland wrote to the Soviet Embassy, asking that very question:

unnamed (15) The National Archives / 2014/32/111 The National Archives / 2014/32/111 / 2014/32/111

Can’t see the document? Click here.

However, the Soviets stuck to their statement that there was nothing to worry about:

gsdfgdf The National Archives / 2014/32/111 The National Archives / 2014/32/111 / 2014/32/111

Can’t see this document? Click here.

The Irish Government were not too happy with the response, stating that the Soviets had responded “negatively to our request for information”.

unnamed (16) The National Archives / 2014/32/111 The National Archives / 2014/32/111 / 2014/32/111

Can’t see this document? Click here.

With no information from the Soviets, the authorities looked at the contingency of what would happen if the satellite did crash in Ireland?

They sought legal advice which said that “if the satellite were to violate Irish air space or to land on Irish territory this would be a violation of Irish sovreignty”.

Compensation for damage caused 

The Government wanted to know if Ireland would be able to claim compensation substancial damage was caused by the crash.

There is an international convention that nations have signed called the Convention on International Liability for Damage Done by Space Objects 1978.

The advice given to Government was that the USSR was party to the convention, however, one state file reports: “Ireland appears to have signed, but certainly not ratified the Convention.”

It appears, from Political Division, that Ireland has never ratifed the UN Convention on liability for items falling from space, if this is so, our rights to compensation are not clear.

However, in the end, Ireland didn’t have to worry, as the main part of the satellite plunged through the atmosphere splashing down into the Indian Ocean on the night of 23 January 1983.

The nuclear fuel core plunged into the South Atlantic Ocean, about 1,000 miles east of Brazil on 7 February 1983.

The final segment of the satellite is believed to have burned up harmlessly into dust-like particles. The Soviets claimed that any radiation entering the atmosphere from the fragments would be within limits designated safe for humans, though reconnaissance planes were dispatched to search for increased levels of radioactivity in the atmosphere.

A study that appeared in the journal Geochemical in March 1985 reported the presence of radioactive strontium fallout in rain samples collected in Fayetteville, Arkansas, between February and June 1983, believed to have come from the burn-up of Cosmos 1402.

Additional reporting Business Insider 

Read: Orion: A successful Planet Earth landing for NASA’s latest test-flight>

Read: These women were meant to be the first astronauts – but were left on Earth>

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.