As It Happens

Russian space junk, believed to be toxic, set to splash down in Canada's Arctic

Communities throughout Nunavut are shocked to learn toxic Russian space debris is scheduled to fall into Baffin Bay this weekend.
A Russian missile stage is set to splash down in Baffin Bay. Environmentalists fear the stage may contain toxic chemicals that would pollute the pristine waters. (AP)
Listen5:44

A Russian rocket stage, which is believed to use a toxic chemical as fuel, is expected to splash down this weekend off the coast of Baffin Island. 

"Our immediate reaction was why there? And why in our front yard? Are we in danger?" asks Marty Kuluguqtuq. He is the acting senior administrative officer for the Hamlet of Grise Fiord.

Kuluguqtuq tells As It Happens host Carol Off he's been unable to gather much information about the launch. A Canadian senator's office alerted him of the splashdown, but he has heard nothing from Russian or Canadian governments.

The rocket stage expected to splash down this weekend is from a for-profit service that launches satellites into orbit. The program repurposes Soviet SS-19 intercontinental missiles for space launch. (AP)

An international aviation authority has issued a notice, warning that debris from a Russian rocket launch is slated to fall June 4 into Baffin Bay. That is outside Canada's territorial waters but inside an economic zone the country partially controls.

The Russian rocket is from the Soviet era, and Kuluguqtuq is concerned about its fuel, hydrazine — a highly unstable, toxic substance.

​"Other than the literature available online, we don't know what hydrazine is capable of other than it's very dangerous and very toxic," says Kuluguqtuq.

The U.S. last used hydrazine as a launch propellant in its Titan missile program, which ended a decade ago.

In this 1997 file photo, soldiers prepare to destroy a ballistic SS-19 missile in the yard of the largest former Soviet military rocket base in Vakulenchuk, Ukraine. (Associated Press)

"We are quite concerned of the toxicity potential of the fallout and [its effect on] animals that we take through the hunt," says Kuluguqtuq.

The rocket stage is expected to come down in the North Water Polynya, an 85,000-square-kilometre area of the Arctic Ocean that naturally remains ice-free all year.

The open water is a refuge for narwhal, beluga, walrus and bowhead whales. Its plankton-rich waters draw shoals of Arctic cod, providing food for an ecosystem that also supports seals, polar bears and millions of seabirds.

The polynya — the largest in the Arctic — is hunted by Inuit from Canada and Greenland.

"All in all, it has a potential of devastating effects not only to ourselves … but to the animals and our hunting practices might be in jeopardy if anything goes wrong," says Kuluguqtuq.

There's no word on how much hydrazine will still be in the spent rocket stage. In 2005,  an American rocket stage splashed down off the coast of Newfoundland releasing more than two tonnes of hydrazine-based fuel.

With files from Canadian Press

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