Radioactive Satellite Fragments Land in Canada (Great Events from History II: Ecology and the Environment Series)
Article abstract: Radioactive debris from the Soviet Cosmos 954 ocean surveillance satellite was scattered along an 800-kilometer path in the Canadian Northwest Territories.
Summary of Event
The heat generated by radioactive decay can be converted to electrical current. This can serve as a source of electricity for spacecraft that require more power than can be generated by solar cells or stored in batteries. The Soviet Union developed a nuclear power reactor for use in a series of Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellites (RORSAT), which used high-power radar to track ships at sea. Two of these RORSATs generally worked together, the second following about thirty minutes behind the first, so that both the position and the course of individual ships could be determined by the comparison of the ship’s positions.
The nuclear reactor used to power a RORSAT used about 50 kilograms of enriched uranium 235 to generate electricity. During the operation of this nuclear reactor, the decay of uranium 235 produced radioactive products in the fuel. In addition, the structure of the reactor became radioactive as it was bombarded by neutrons that escaped from the core.
The RORSATs orbited at low altitudes, typically 260 to 290 kilometers above the earth’s surface, to minimize the radar power required to obtain a signal from the ships. At such low altitudes, interactions with the atmosphere eventually produced...
(The entire section is 2410 words.)
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