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Old Russian Nuclear Satellite Returns
by Andrei Kislyakov
Moscow (RIA Novosti) Jan 30, 2009

Kosmos 1818 a Topaz reactor flashing on October 28 1994 at an altitude of 814 km in Cas.

For about two weeks there have been arguments over the "suddenly revived" Soviet-made nuclear-powered satellite which had been placed into an 800 km-high orbit in 1987.

The military space vehicle suddenly started losing parts, sparking fears of a possible threat. Rest assured, the Kosmos 1818 satellite is incapable of destroying the Earth. However, the question forces consideration of space security issues in general.

The back story is as follows. In mid-summer last year, NORAD tracking systems spotted the first signs of the satellite's disintegration. On July 4, NASA published the information recorded. The process gained momentum, in the current state of the satellite covered in the NASA orbital debris bulletin of January 15.

Russia's competent agencies made no announcements until recently, while it could have saved a lot of biased statements about the "new Russian threat". Eventually, they had to explain, however, what was going on.

"According to Russia's Space Monitoring System, a partial fragmentation with no abnormal orbit variation of the Kosmos-1818 satellite was detected on July 4, 2008. The satellite poses no threat to the ISS, and there's no possibility of radioactive contamination of the Earth surface", Major General Alexander Yakushin, Russia's Space Force first deputy commander, said on January 21.

"The orbit parameters record is updated daily. The Kosmos-1818 is expected to burn out in 2045. The orbit parameters of the fragments guarantee a lifetime comparable with that of the satellite," the officer added.

The Kosmos-1818 satellite was a test model developed within a program intended to create reconnaissance satellites to be used with the military, including the navy. It's worth mentioning that the U.S.S.R. had a good track record in the development of nuclear propulsion units for spacecraft. As early as in the mid-1960s, the BES-5 Buk space reactor was built. The Topaz power plant installed on the Kosmos-1818 was a later design.

We can only guess at the reason for the satellite defragmentation. Specialists say the ball-shaped fragments could be the sodium-potassium coolant from the reactor's radiator tubes.

According to NASA, although the coolant was supposed to be in a solid state, some could have melted under the sun last July, leaking from the tube as a result of a long cyclic effect of extreme temperatures eventually turning into metallic-looking balls moving through space.

The important thing is that these fragments pose no threat to the Earth's population. The story of Kosmos-1818 and its predecessors, however, sets us thinking. It is clear that a constellation of nuclear-powered reconnaissance satellites would have a vast operating potential incomparable to that of conventional space vehicles.

It's no coincidence that the U.S. plans to equip its new satellites with propulsion units based on the Russian-made Topaz-2 purchased in 1992.

It is clear already that using "chemical" engines to equip long-range manned space vehicles for interplanetary flights is hardly possible. Nuclear power is regarded as the main alternative.

NASA is currently developing a manned space vehicle with a nuclear power plant, and therefore a series of nuclear satellites could be orbited soon. Will everything be secure then? How can we prevent possible nuclear disasters in outer space?

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Source: RIA Novosti


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