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Kosmic debris

Diagram of Kosmos 954.
CBC/Operation Morning Light/Imperative Productions
Fallout from the Cold War ranged from economic and social ramifications between geopolitical rivals to space debris left behind by space-race projects. It was 46 years ago that radioactive pieces of the Soviet Union’s satellite Kosmos 954 crashed in Canada’s North. Still, the impact remains little known despite having far-reaching impacts on rural communities and the environment.

In mid-September 1977, the Soviets launched the uranium-powered satellites. Its most likely purpose was the long-term monitoring of naval activity of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and United States. Only two months later, though, Kosmos became unstable, its orbit unpredictable. Despite Cold-War tensions, the Soviets met with the Americans to discuss the satellite’s anticipated crash—expected to come down in North America. Some officials predicted its uranium would cause worse nuclear contamination than an atomic bomb.

Debris found from Kosmos 954.
On Jan. 24, 1978, Kosmos re-entered the atmosphere, leaving wreckage across the Northwest Territories (present-day Nunavut), Alberta and Saskatchewan. With U.S. assistance, the Canadian government launched Operation Morning Light to locate any radioactive material amid the 124,000-square-kilometres crash zone, which was located in difficult-to-navigate terrain. The teams managed to recover a dozen parts of the satellite, 10 of which were radioactive; but, less than one per cent of Kosmos’ nuclear power source was located.

While experts believed the satellite’s most radioactive parts vaporized in the atmosphere, area wildlife were contaminated by radioactive material that remained intact after falling to Earth and locals were concerned of the uranium’s effects on human populations.

It was an unusual scare in what’s normally a quiet part of Canada. But one resident prophesized that, “the north has awakened to a new era.”


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