Operation Morning Light

Operation Morning Light was the name given to the first phase of the search for the nuclear-powered Soviet satellite that accidentally re-entered the Earth's atmosphere over northern Canada early on 24 January 1978.

Operation Morning Light

Operation Morning Light was the name given to the first phase of the search for the nuclear-powered Soviet satellite that accidentally re-entered the Earth's atmosphere over northern Canada early on 24 January 1978. Cosmos 954 had behaved abnormally almost since being launched 18 September 1977; early January 24 the satellite experienced increasing friction as it plunged deeper into the atmosphere on its last orbit. NORAD had predicted the time of re-entry and its Hawaiian telescopic tracking station noted the satellite's dull red glow as it passed towards the Queen Charlotte Islands [Haida Gwaii]. Minutes later people in Yellowknife, NWT, noticed a bright whitish object streaking across the sky.

Debris was sent to Edmonton and then to Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment in Pinawa, Manitoba, for analysis and final storage. At the peak of the search, approximately 220 people were located at Edmonton and at Yellowknife, which was the base of operations for helicopters used in the search. The first charred object was found late January 26 near the mouth of the Hoarfrost River, 27 km north of Fort Reliance. Further discovery of more particles increased the evidence that they were the remains of a nuclear reactor core that had melted or "burned up" in the upper levels of the dense atmosphere - more or less as had been asserted by the Soviets January 24. It was clear that there no longer was need to be concerned that the core could have reached the ground to become a hazard. Nevertheless, some larger, intensely radioactive and potentially lethal core fragments were found on the ice over the middle of Great Slave Lake. On February 23 the most intensely radioactive piece, a flake about the size of a nickel, was recovered.

Operation Morning Light ended April 20 because of spring breakup. The search area covered an area greater than 124,000 km2 and more than 4500 hours of flying time had been logged. All inhabited areas had been searched, including the sites of the 1978 Arctic Winter Games in Hay River and Pine Point.

The second phase of the search, July-October, was done under contract from the Atomic Energy Control Board. By mid-October, more than 4000 particles, flakes and pieces had been recovered and more than 4700 lab analyses had been done. All seasonally inhabited areas, as well as the whooping crane nesting area in Wood Buffalo National Park, had been searched and cleaned. The total cost incurred by the various Canadian departments and agencies involved in the first phase was $12 048 239 of which $4 414 348 was included in Canada's claim to the USSR under the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects. The total cost incurred during the second phase totalled $1 921 904 of which $1 626 825 was included in Canada's claim. The USSR made payment of approximately $3 000 000.


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