CBC Digital Archives

1978: Soviet nuclear satellite crashes in Canadian North

media clip
On Jan. 24, 1978, Norad tracks a fireball streaking across the skies over the Northwest Territories. Cosmos 954, a Soviet satellite, crashes near Great Slave Lake, scattering radioactive waste across a 124,000 square kilometre swath of the Northwest Territories, Alberta and Saskatchewan. In Ottawa, there are urgent questions for Prime Minister Trudeau: Why wasn't there more warning? Were the Americans holding back information? And who will clean up the mess? CBC Radio's The House examines the political fallout from Cosmos 954.
• Cosmos 954, a maritime surveillance satellite, was launched on Sept. 18, 1977. Norad computers noticed decay in its orbit almost immediately. It was powered by a tiny nuclear reactor. Because of the radiation risk, the Soviets soon admitted the satellite was out of control, but gave few other details. The satellite was designed to eject its reactor core into a higher orbit in case of emergency, but this feature malfunctioned.

• A joint Canada-U.S. cleanup effort, dubbed Operation Morning Light, ran until October 1978, but just 0.1 per cent of the satellite's power source was recovered. Canada asked the Soviet Union to pay the estimated $15-million tab; eventually it paid less than half.
• The crash is credited with drawing international attention to the use of radioactive materials in space.

• Skylab, the giant piece of space junk mentioned in this clip, was America's first experimental space station. Three-person crews lived aboard Skylab for a total of 171 days, and conducted nearly 300 experiments before the station was abandoned. On July 11, 1979, Skylab crashed to earth, scattering debris across the Indian Ocean and Western Australia.

Also on January 24:
1797: The first session of the Assembly of Lower Canada opens at Quebec City and deals with agreements with Upper Canada on customs revenue.
1952: Longtime diplomat Vincent Massey is appointed the first Canadian-born governor general, serving Feb. 28, 1952 to Sept. 15, 1959.
1984: Apple Computers introduces the Macintosh.
1988: Ben Johnson becomes the first Canadian track athlete to be named the Associated Press athlete of the year. Later that year, at the Seoul Summer Olympics, Johnson tests positive for steroids and is stripped of his 100-metre gold medal.
Medium: Radio
Program: The House
Broadcast Date: Jan. 28, 1978
Guest(s): Joe Clark, Barney Danson, Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Host: Marguerite McDonald
Duration: 9:45
Photo: Department of National Defence

Last updated: August 20, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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