Looking at a shooting star, do not rush to make a wish. Human whims are not always good. And shooting stars also do not always bring joy: many of them do not know how to fulfill desires, but they can forgive all sins at once.
At midnight from 6th to 7th January 1978, a new star of Bethlehem flashed in the sky. The whole world froze in agonizing anticipation. Is the end of the world near? But what is this bright point rushing across the sky in reality?
Despite the super secrecy, information about the true origin of the "Star of Bethlehem" and the threat it poses to the whole world has been leaked to the Western media. On that Christmas night in 1978, the spacecraft Kosmos-954 was depressurized. The satellite, in low-earth orbit, finally got out of the control of ground services. Now nothing could prevent him from falling to Earth.
Cases of malfunctions and uncontrolled descent of spacecraft from orbit are not uncommon, however, most of the debris burns up in the upper atmosphere, and those of the structural elements that do reach the surface do not pose a great danger to the inhabitants of the Earth. The chances of falling under the falling debris of the spacecraft are small, while the fragments themselves are of modest size and are not capable of causing significant damage. But that time everything turned out differently: unlike some harmless station "Phobos-Grunt", "Cosmos-954", a hellish unit filled with 30 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, got out of control.
Behind the nondescript bureaucratic index "Cosmos-954" was a massive 4-ton station with a nuclear power plant on board - a space reconnaissance complex, passing under NATO documents as RORSAT (Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite).
The uncontrolled vehicle quickly lost speed and altitude. The fall of "Cosmos-954" to Earth was becoming inevitable … Everything should happen in the near future. But who will get the main prize?
The prospect of playing "Russian roulette" with a nuclear accent has seriously alarmed the whole world. With bated breath, everyone gazed into the darkness of the night … Somewhere out there, among the scattering of twinkling stars, a real "Death Star" rushed, threatening to incinerate any city on which its debris would fall.
Marine space reconnaissance and target designation system
But for what purposes did the Soviet Union need such a dangerous apparatus?
A nuclear reactor in space? Why domestic specialists were not satisfied with standard solar batteries or, in extreme cases, compact radioisotope generators? All the answers lie in the area of the satellite's purpose.
Spacecraft "Kosmos-954" belonged to the series of satellites US-A ("Controlled Sputnik Active") - a key element of the global system of maritime space reconnaissance and target designation (MCRTs) "Legend".
The meaning of the ICRTs work was to deploy in near-earth orbits a constellation of satellites designed to track the sea surface and determine the situation in any area of the World Ocean. Having received such a system, Soviet sailors could “with one click of their fingers” request and receive information about the current position of ships in a given square, determine their number and direction of movement, and thereby reveal all the plans and designs of the “potential enemy”.
The global "Legend" threatened to become the "all-seeing eye" of the Navy - an extremely vigilant, reliable and practically invulnerable maritime reconnaissance system. However, a beautiful theory in practice resulted in a complex of intractable problems of a technical nature: a complex system of heterogeneous technical complexes, united by a single algorithm of functioning.
Many industrial research centers and design teams were involved in the work on the creation of the ICRC, in particular, the Physics and Power Engineering Institute, the Institute of Atomic Energy named after V. I. I. V. Kurchatov, Leningrad plant "Arsenal" them. M. V. Frunze. A working group headed by Academician M. V. Keldysh. The same team calculated the parameters of the orbits and the optimal relative position of spacecraft during the operation of the system. The parent organization responsible for the creation of the "Legend" was NPO Mashinostroenie under the leadership of V. N. Chalomey.
The main principle of the ICRTs operation was an active method of conducting reconnaissance using radar. The orbital constellation of satellites was to be headed by the US-A series vehicles - unique satellites equipped with a two-way side-looking radar of the Chaika system. The equipment of these stations provided round-the-clock all-weather detection of objects on the sea surface and the issuance of intelligence and target designation on board the warships of the USSR Navy in real time.
It is easy to imagine what inconceivable cosmic power the Soviet Union possessed
However, when implementing the idea of a "radar satellite", the creators of the ICRC faced a number of mutually exclusive paragraphs.
So, for the effective operation of the radar, it should have been placed as close as possible to the Earth's surface: the orbits of the US-A had to be at altitudes of 250-280 km (for comparison, the orbital altitude of the ISS is over 400 km). On the other hand, the radar was extremely demanding in terms of power consumption. But where to get in space a sufficiently powerful and compact source of electrical energy?
Large area solar panels?
But a low orbit with short-term stability (several months) makes it difficult to use solar cells: due to the braking effect of the atmosphere, the device will quickly lose speed and prematurely leave orbit. In addition, the spacecraft spends part of the time in the shadow of the Earth: solar batteries will not be able to continuously provide power to a powerful radar installation.
Remote methods of transferring energy from the Earth to the satellite using powerful lasers or microwave radiation? Science fiction beyond the reach of late 1960s technology.
Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs)?
Red-hot plutonium pellet + thermocouple. What could be easier? Such power plants have found the widest application in spacecraft - a reliable and compact anaerobic power source capable of continuously operating for a couple of decades. Alas, their electrical power turned out to be completely insufficient - even in the best examples of RTGs it does not exceed 300 … 400 W. This is enough to power scientific equipment and communication systems of conventional satellites, but the power consumption of the US-A systems was about 3000 W!
There was only one way out - a full-fledged nuclear reactor with control rods and cooling circuits.
At the same time, in view of the severe restrictions imposed by rocket and space technology when placing cargo into orbit, the installation had to have the maximum compactness and a relatively small mass. Each extra kilogram cost tens of thousands of full-weight Soviet rubles. The specialists were faced with the nontrivial task of creating a nuclear mini-reactor - light, powerful, but at the same time reliable enough to survive the overloads during launch into orbit and two months of continuous operation in open space. What is the problem of cooling the spacecraft and dumping excess heat in an airless space?
Nuclear reactor for spacecraft TPP-5 "Topaz"
And yet such a reactor was created! Soviet engineers have created a small man-made miracle - BES-5 "Buk". A fast neutron reactor with a liquid metal coolant, specially designed as a means for power supply of spacecraft.
The core was a combination of 37 fuel assemblies with a total thermal power of 100 kW. Weapons-grade uranium enriched up to 90% was used as fuel! Outside, the reactor vessel was surrounded by a 100 mm thick beryllium reflector. The core was controlled using six movable beryllium rods located parallel to each other. The temperature of the primary circuit of the reactor was 700 ° C. The temperature of the second circuit was 350 ° C. The electric power of the BES-5 thermocouple was 3 kilowatts. The weight of the entire installation is about 900 kg. The service life of the reactor is 120 … 130 days.
Due to the complete uninhabitability of the apparatus and its location outside the human environment, no specialized biological protection was provided. The design of the US-A provided only local radiation protection of the reactor from the radar side.
However, a serious problem arises … After a few months, the spacecraft will inevitably leave orbit and collapse in the Earth's atmosphere. How to avoid radioactive contamination of the planet? How to safely "get rid" of the terrible sounding "Buk"?
The only correct solution is to separate the stage with the reactor and "mothball" it in a high orbit (750 … 1000 km), where, according to calculations, it will be stored for 250 years or more. Well, then our advanced descendants will definitely come up with something …
In addition to the unique US-A radar satellite, nicknamed "Long" for its appearance, the Legend ICRC included several US-P radio reconnaissance satellites ("Passive Controlled Satellite", naval nickname - "Flat"). Compared to "long" satellites, "flat" ones were much more primitive spacecraft - ordinary reconnaissance satellites, bearing the position of enemy ship radars, radio stations and any other sources of radio emission. US-P weight - 3, 3 tons. The working orbit altitude is 400+ km. The energy source is solar panels.
In total, from 1970 to 1988, the Soviet Union launched 32 satellites with a nuclear power plant BES-5 "Buk" into orbit. In addition, two more launched vehicles (Kosmos-1818 and Kosmos-1867) carried on board a new promising installation of TPP-5 Topaz. New technologies made it possible to increase the energy release to 6, 6 kW: it was possible to raise the orbit height, as a result of which the service life of the new satellite was increased to six months.
Of the 32 launches of US-A with the BES-5 Buk nuclear installation, ten had some serious malfunctioning: some of the satellites were prematurely placed into the “burial orbit” due to the core melt or failure of other reactor systems. For three vehicles, the matter ended even more seriously: they lost control and collapsed in the upper atmosphere without separating and "mothballing" their reactor facilities:
- 1973, due to the accident of the launch vehicle, the satellite of the US-A series was not launched into low-earth orbit and collapsed in the North Pacific Ocean;
- 1982 - another uncontrolled descent from orbit. The wreckage of the Kosmos-1402 satellite disappeared into the raging waves of the Atlantic.
And, of course, the main incident in the history of the ICRC is the fall of the Kosmos-954 satellite.
The spacecraft "Kosmos-954" was launched from Baikonur on September 18, 1977 in tandem with its twin colleague "Kosmos-952". Spacecraft orbit parameters: perigee - 259 km, apogee - 277 km. The inclination of the orbit is 65 °.
A month later, on October 28, MCC specialists unexpectedly lost control of the satellite. According to calculations, at that moment "Cosmos-954" was over the Woomera test site (Australia), which gave reason to believe that the Soviet satellite came under the influence of an unknown weapon (a powerful American laser or radar installation). Was it really so, or the reason was the usual equipment failure, but the spacecraft stopped responding to MCC requests and refused to transfer its nuclear installation to a higher "disposal orbit". On January 6, 1978, the instrument compartment was depressurized - the damaged Cosmos-954 finally turned into a pile of dead metal with a high radiation background, and every day it was getting closer to the Earth.
Operation Morning Light
… The spacecraft was rapidly flying down, tumbling in a raging cloud of plasma. Closer, closer to the surface …
Finally, Kosmos-954 went out of sight of the Soviet tracking stations and disappeared on the other side of the globe. The curve on the computer screen jerked and straightened, indicating the place of the likely fall of the satellite. Computers accurately calculated the crash site of 954 - somewhere in the middle of the snowy expanses of northern Canada.
"A Soviet satellite with a small nuclear device on board fell on the territory of Canada"
- urgent message from TASS dated January 24, 1978
Well, everything, now it will begin … Diplomats, military, environmentalists, UN, public organizations and annoying reporters. Statements and notes of protest, expert opinions, accusatory articles, reports from the crash site, evening TV shows with the participation of invited experts and venerable scientists, various rallies and protests. Both laughter and sin. The Soviets dropped an atomic satellite on North America.
However, everything is not so bad: the extremely low population density in those parts should help to avoid serious consequences and casualties among the civilian population. In the end, the satellite did not collapse over densely populated Europe, and certainly not over Washington.
Experts associated the last hope with the design of the apparatus itself. The creators of the US-A thought about a similar scenario: in case of loss of control over the spacecraft and the impossibility of separating the reactor installation for its subsequent transfer to the "conservation orbit", the passive protection of the satellite had to come into effect. The side beryllium reflector of the reactor consisted of several segments tightened by a steel tape - when the spacecraft entered the Earth's atmosphere, thermal heating was supposed to destroy the tape. Further, the plasma streams "gut" the reactor, scattering the uranium assemblies and the moderator. This will allow most of the materials to be burned in the upper layers of the atmosphere and will prevent large radioactive fragments of the apparatus from falling on the Earth's surface.
In reality, the epic with the fall of a nuclear satellite ended as follows.
The passive protection system was unable to prevent radiation pollution: the satellite debris was scattered over a strip of 800 km long. However, due to the almost complete desertion of those areas of Canada, it was possible to avoid at least some serious consequences for the life and health of the civilian population.
In total, during the search operation Morning Light (Cosmos-954 collapsed at dawn, drawing a bright streak of fire in the sky over North America), the Canadian military and their colleagues from the United States managed to collect more than 100 satellite fragments - disks, rods, reactor fittings, whose radioactive background ranged from several microroentgens to 200 roentgens / hour. Parts of a beryllium reflector became the most valuable find for American intelligence.
Soviet intelligence was seriously planning to conduct a secret operation in Canada to eliminate the wreckage of the emergency satellite, but the idea did not find support among the party leadership: if a Soviet group was found behind enemy lines, the already unpleasant situation with a nuclear accident would have turned into a huge scandal.
There are many mysteries associated with the payment of compensation: according to a 1981 report, Canada estimated its costs of eliminating the fall of the satellite at $ 6,041,174, 70 dollars. The USSR agreed to pay only 3 million. It is still not known for certain what compensation the Soviet side paid. In any case, the amount was purely symbolic.
A flurry of accusations of the use of dangerous technologies and massive protests against the launches of satellites with nuclear reactors could not force the USSR to abandon the development of its fantastic ICRC. However, the launches were suspended for three years. All this time, Soviet specialists have been working to improve the safety of the BES-5 Buk nuclear installation. Now a gas-dynamic method of destruction of a nuclear reactor with forced ejection of fuel elements has been introduced into the design of the satellite.
The system continued to improve continuously. The high potential of the Legend was demonstrated by the Falklands Conflict (1982). The awareness of Soviet sailors about the situation in the combat zone was better than that of the direct participants in the conflict. The ICRTs made it possible to "reveal" the composition and plans of Her Majesty's squadron, and to accurately predict the moment of the landing of the British landing.
The last launch of a naval reconnaissance satellite with a nuclear reactor took place on March 14, 1988.
The real MCRTs "Legend" had little in common with the mythical image created on the pages of popular technical literature. The system that existed at that time was a real nightmare: the principles underlying the work of the ICRC turned out to be excessively complex for the technology of the level of the 1960s - 1970s.
As a result, the ICRC had an exorbitant cost, extremely low reliability and a severe accident rate - a third of the launched vehicles, for one reason or another, could not fulfill their mission. In addition, most of the US-A launches were carried out in test mode - as a result, the operational readiness of the system was low. However, all the accusations against the creators of the ICRC are unfair: they created a real masterpiece that was ahead of its time by many years.
The Soviet "Legend" was largely an experiment that proved the fundamental possibility of creating such systems: a small-sized nuclear reactor, side-looking radar, real-time data transmission line, automatic target detection and selection, operation in the "detected - reported" mode …
At the same time, it would be too frivolous to consider the old ICRC only as a "demonstrator" of new technologies. Despite its many problems, the system could indeed operate normally, which caused discomfort to the fleets of NATO countries. In addition, in the event of the start of real hostilities (Tom Clancy and Co), the USSR had a real opportunity to launch the required number of such "toys" into orbit without regard to their cost and security measures - and gain absolute control over sea communications.
Nowadays, the implementation of such an idea would require much less effort and money. The colossal progress in the field of radio electronics makes it possible today to build a global tracking system based on different principles: electronic reconnaissance and aerial reconnaissance using optoelectronic devices operating only in a passive mode.
P. S. 31 reactors are still plowing the vastness of space, threatening one day to fall on your head
Search for the wreckage of "Cosmos-954"