Russian spy satellite tumbles to Earth: from the Guardian archive, 24 Jan 1983

Cosmos 1402, the Russian spy satellite which has been out of control for more than a month, finally tumbled into the Indian Ocean last night, ending a day of anxiety for governments around the world.

The main body of the maverick satellite, weighing some 3,000lb splashed into the sea about 900 nautical miles south-east of the British dependency of Diego Garcia at 22.21 GMT – one minute ahead of the final Pentagon prediction.

By the time the satellite hit the sea it was believed to have disintegrated. The real hazard, however, lies further ahead. The satellite’s nuclear core is still in orbit and is expected to decay and fall to earth during the first weeks of February.

It is feared that the platform of uranium 235 may come down in lumps of radioactive debris covering a fairly wide area – as the nuclear reactor of Cosmos 954 did over northern Canada in 1979.

Nations have been preparing for months in case the platform has not fully disintegrated by the time it reaches earth’s atmosphere.

The Russians are known to have changed the design of their satellites since the crash of 954 and have persistently claimed that 1402 presents no abnormal hazard.

The satellite was visible over much of Britain last night as it fell towards earth.

Mr Max White, who spent the day monitoring the satellite from the Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux, Sussex, said that Cosmos 1402 appeared over Britain at 5.24 pm. It was visible for about a minute as it crossed Britain on a path from the south-west to the north-east, at a height of 95.6 miles.

“It was like a bright, fast-moving star,” said Mr White. “We saw no burning-up occurring.”

The satellite passed over the northern coast of Scotland shortly before 7pm and was expected to appear over the same area three more times as it spiralled down to earth.

Oman yesterday declared a full state of alert against a possible shower of debris from the spacecraft. The Gulf News Agency said the alert would last up to 14.00 GMT today.

In Kuwait, the Government said it had asked the Soviet Union for information on where the satellite might come down.

The United Arab Emirates placed all naval, air force and army units on alert. Russia was expected to send ships and reconnaissance jets from South Yemen, where they maintain a military presence.

Sri Lanka police shooed away sightseers from a coconut plantation where an unidentified object hurtled to the ground late on Saturday. The object was spotted by two schoolboys who said it looked like a “ball of fire.”

The Canadians, mindful of the chunks of nuclear-powered Soviet satellite Cosmos 954 which fell into the remote north-west territories in January, 1978, put a 50-member rapid response team of scientists and technicians on the alert.

They were ready to track down any radioactive debris using a gamma-ray spectrometer, the equipment which played a key role in providing the first positive fix of the Cosmos 954.

Sweden’s nuclear emergency surveillance team kept 1,000 people and 20 aircraft on standby. France called up 22 mobile civil defence units, supplemented by 400 teams of firemen and policemen equipped with radioactivity detectors. West Germany mobilised helicopters and ground vehicles to help to clear up any contamination.

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