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A Russian Spy Satellite hits a snag
It was in January 1978 that a news item surfaced about a Soviet nuclear-powered satellite that had become unstable and was gradually descending from its normal orbit. At first there was only minimal interest, but as the days went by the impending re- entry of this satellite and the fate of the nuclear reactor which it carried, moved onto the front pages. The Soviets had conceded that it was indeed powered by a nuclear reactor and that yes, something had gone wrong and no, they no longer had any control over it.
By this time it was apparent that the scenario had all the makings of a major nuclear catastrophe; a satellite carrying a lethal nuclear payload circling the earth every nintey minutes or so and coming ever closer to the point where it would suddenly enter the atmosphere and plummet down to the surface - somehwere. This was literally Russian Roulette with a vengeance and if that "somehwere" turned out to be a major population centre, then all hell would break loose.
It was in the early morning hours of January the 24th, as it crossed the northern Pacific from west to east, that it finally disappeared from the radar screens that had been monitoring its progress. Shortly after that there were reports from various locations of a ball of fire streaking across the morning sky over the North West Territories. When these reports along with other evidence were pieced together, it became apparent that the satellite had almost certainly re-entered the earth's atmosphere somewhere over the Queen Charlotte Islands (several hundred miles north of Vancouver) along a trajectory that would have taken it north-east across Great Slave Lake towards Baker Lake.
If this turned out to be correct, then there would be debris from the impact, wherever it finally landed, strewn across this area. Furthermore a lot of it would probably be dangerously radioactive if the nuclear reactor had survived the re-entry more or less intact and had then broken apart on impact.
This area was by then in the deep-freeze of the Canadian sub-arctic winter, when temperatures range down to -40 degrees or lower (minus-forty is the temperature at which Fahrenheit is the same as Centigrade). At that point the Trudeau govermnent quickly agreed to accept an offer of American technical help in locating any radioactive debris that there might be. It was clear that any such operation would require massive logistical support on a scale which only the military could mount at short notice.
Working on the premise that the impact trajectory was as described above, it was decided to make the Canadian Forces Base at Namao (a suburb of Edmonton, Alberta) the headquarters for the people who would be involved in the search for the satellite. The operation itself was code named "Operation Morning Light", because of the sightings in the early morning which had provided the only specific evidence that could be linked to the re-entry.
The Americans come to the rescue and the GSC gets involved
A colleague of mine at the GSC, Bob Grasty, who was one of the scientists involved with our airborne gamma ray spectrometry program, went to the Canadian Forces Base at Namao (CFB Namao) to see what was going on the day after the satellite "Cosmos 954" went missing from the skies. What he found was that the place had been virtually taken over by the Americans. They had a standing task force code named "NEST" for "Nuclear Emergency Search Team" stationed at Las Vegas Nevada, whose mission it was to fly airborne surveys using helicopters, to monitor the area for radiation leaking from the surface following each and every underground atomic weapons test that was conducted there. They were supremely well equipped, and on virtually permanent standby to be deployed as a self contained and self-sufficient unit to almost anywhere in the world at a few hours notice, to deal with just such an emergency as this appeared to be.
They had arrived complete with all their gear in two C-141 military cargo aircraft, which had brought all the paraphenalia and the one hundred and twenty people that came with it. The C-141 cargo plane was a behemoth about the size of a 747 airliner. The equipment that it disgorged included not only a complete mobile communications centre, with powerful relay transmitters to communicate with their home base, but two helicopters with gamma ray spectrometry systems already installed, as well as several other spectrometry systems ready to be installed in any available aircraft. Also included were two complete data processing units in what came to be known as the "bread vans", because they were the type of small delivery vans typically used by bakeries.
Grasty quickly got tuned in to the situation and discovered that no one was aware that the Geological Survey of Canada had been conducting airborne gamma ray spectrometry surveys for ten years and had a great deal of experience in that field. He told the people in charge that the GSC now had a new and very sophisticated system that was tailor made for the sort of airborne search that was now about to begin (see previous page). As a result, an urgent request was made for assistance from the GSC. I got the message at about ten o'clock on the morning of the 25th of January and spent the rest of the day preparing to leave for CFB Namao that night. The preparations included stripping the place of just about every piece of potentially useful equipment that wasn't nailed down and arranging for it to be boxed up for shipment. The decision to design the borehole-logging system to be compatible with the new airborne system was now paying off with a vengeance under circumstances that I could not possibly have imagined. It was of course at the top of the list to be included in the shipment.
By seven o'clock that evening my colleague Peter Holman and I were ready to go. Peter was the field man who for the previous ten years had been conducting the airborne surveys with the GSC Skyvan aircraft every summer as party chief. He was responsible for acquiring the data and processing it into maps showing the concentrations of the three radioelements. These maps, published by the GSC, were eagerly snapped up by mining and exploration companies who by then had come to recognise their value in mineral exploration. Peter had a great deal of hands-on experience in navigating closely spaced flight lines with nothing much more than a topographic map or a mosaic of aerial photos on his knee, and in dealing with the vagaries of airborne geophysical surveys in general.
A Military "Cosmopolitan" aircraft had been assigned to take us from Ottawa to Edmonton and it was being prepared for departure as we made our way to the operations sector of Ottawa airport where we had our hangar for the Skyvan aircraft. The spectrometer was large and heavy. The electronic units (NOVA minicomputer, magnetic tape drive, graphic display, keyboard/printer terminal, six-channel strip chart recorder, and other modules) were contained in an instrument rack about four feet wide, which was bolted on to a sheet metal box containing the twelve large scintillation detectors, cushioned in polyethylene foam to provide thermal and mechanical insulation. This detector box was about six feet long by two feet high, giving an overall length with the instrument rack attached, of about nine feet. This integral structure was mounted on small wheels which engaged in channeling attached to the aircraft floor, so that the whole unit could be moved easily into and out of the aircraft from a special dolly with rubber tired wheels which was exactly the same height as the aircraft floor.
As fate would have it there was a heavy snow storm blowing outside and we somehow had to get the spectrometer from our hangar to the waiting aircraft, which was in a military hangar about half a mile away at the other side of the airport. The dolly was designed to be towed around the hangar and the apron outside by a small van, but it had no springs and no protective cover against rain or snow. We found some plastic sheet and managed to tape it over the instrument rack portion and then we let some air out of the tyres of the dolly to provide some minimal springing. After coupling it up to the van we opened the hangar door and were met with a wall of snow blowing in. Peter and I looked at each other and I said "Well, we don't have a hell of a lot of choice do we?"
He agreed and we got in the van and gingerly started to pull the hundred-thousand dollar spectrometer out into a blinding snow storm and sub-Zero temperatures, protected only by a plastic sheet which fitted where it touched. I knew that the various modules, including the computer would be none the worse for getting a bit chilly, provided they were allowed to warm up before being turned on, but like most things electronic, they would take a very dim view of getting wet. The scintillation crystals were the most fragile components, easily fractured by either mechanical or thermal shock, which is why I had gone to such lengths in the design to have them snugly cushioned with lots and lots of insulation. That turned out to be the first of many occasions that I thanked my stars that I had done that.
We crawled across the network of runways through the snow storm, with our expensive load trundling behind us, for what was one of the longest half-hours of my life before arriving at the military hangar. There we saw the Cosmopolitan, it was a four engined turbo-prop machine, about half the size of the original Viscount. It looked huge in the hangar and the cargo loading bay was somewhere up in the rafters. The military chaps were a bit nonplussed when they saw the size of our "contribution" to the satellite search effort, but nothing daunted they used a fork lift to hoist the spectrometer, dolly and all, on to a loading gantry which in turn raised it up to be level with the cargo bay.
The entrance was in the side of the fuselage, unlike our Skyvan which had a rear door entry giving unimpeded access to the interior of the aircraft. This meant that the spectrometer, all 1400 pounds of it, had to be pushed in and and then turned at the same time, because it was too long to go in broadside on. They had a very difficult time shoe-horning it in and I had an even more difficult time watching them do it. Several times one of the straps being used to hoist it round, slipped off, and it dropped heavily a few inches onto one corner or another. Absolutely none of the equipment in it liked to be dropped and by the time that it was safely in the aircraft I really began to despair that any part of it would ever function again.
The trip to Edmonton was uneventful and we landed at CFB Namao at about midnight local time. There we met up with Grasty and I got a chance to see at first hand the circus that the base had become. By this time the American team had made several sorties with their systems but had found nothing real. By this time also, international interest was at fever pitch with hoardes of media people running round all over the place. The temperatures in the search area, which went across the frozen surface of Great Slave Lake, were about minus 40 degrees and that presented a real problem for the American Helicopter-borne gamma ray spectrometers.
Their scintillation detector packages were carried on pods attached to the helicopter skids and had minimal insulation. This meant that their crystals were unable to withstand the thermal shock of the brutally cold temperatures. Their systems were after all designed to operate in the warm sunny climate of Las Vegas, Nevada. This problem was soon taken care of by the military who made available several huge Hercules C-130 cargo aircraft to carry the American spectrometry systems, and later on some military Chinook helicopters. The Hercules is a four engined turbo-prop machine, perhaps twice the size (or more) of the original Viscount. It can fly for more than twelve hours without refuelling and can carry an awesome amount of cargo. At one point later on in this operation a Hercules was used to ferry a full- sized bulldozer to a destination where it was needed.
Chaos in Edmonton
I met the base commander Colonel Dave Garland, and some of his people. He was just the man that was needed to handle the potentially chaotic situation that was developing at such an alarming rate. He was a cool customer and practically unflappable. He needed to be; in the space of twenty four hours his base had been overwhelmed by the invasion of not only the very large, very high powered and very high-tech American NEST people, but also by an international media entourage which was growing by the hour.
Reporters from Japan and Europe were pouring in, eager to file the firstest-with-the-mostest stories of a nuclear disaster descended from the skies like some sort of divine retribution. Garland had to set up press conferences to take care of all of that, and more importantly, keep abreast of (and control over) the mammoth logistics problems which were looming up, as briefings outlining the magnitude of the problem and what it would take to deal with it, filtered through from the Americans.
There was much mis-information and general confusion reigning during the first few hours. On one of the sorties some sort of blip had been recorded by an American spectrometer and they were practically sure that it was something real. Word of the probable "hit" was passed on to Ottawa, where the Minsiter for National Defence Barney Danson, enthusiastically proclaimed to the world that proof-positive had been found that the nuclear- powered satellite had indeed landed on Canadian soil. "It's either a piece of radioactive debris, or the greatest uranium mine in the world", said Danson. Unfortunately the hit turned out to be some sort of electrical burst of interference, probably from the aircraft radio. When this was verified, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Falls, gave a second news conference in which he confirmed that the report had been false, adding: "I said before that I didn't believe that there was the remotest possibility of anything landing on earth. I still feel it unlikely that anything has landed". It was against this backdrop that we entered the fray.
The first order of business for us was to get the spectrometer out of the Cosmopolitan aircraft and into a Hercules. This was accomplished with less difficulty than we had had getting it in, but it was still a bit of a cliff-hanger. The Hercules was an oversize version of our little Skyvan, with a rear door entry and a flat floor, designed of course for all sorts of cargo. Compared to the Skyvan the inside seemed like a football field, with the spectrometer (which practically filled the available space in the Skyvan), sitting like a little box in the middle of the vast interior.
In the aviation business the authorities are very fussy about approvals for the installation of any kind of airborne instrument packages, for obvious reasons related to surviving a crash. The mechanical design has to be such that the package is able to survive an impact force equivalent to ten times its weight in a forward direction and four times its weight in a downward direction, without disintegrating and demolishing everything in the interior cabin space. This of course includes particularly the method of anchoring the package to the fuselage.
We had had to go through much paperwork and bureaucracy to get the necessary certification for our Skyvan installation and I wondered how that would be handled vis a vis the Hercules. Absolutely no problem at all it turned out - just set it down where it was most convenient and tie it down to some of the many anchor points in the floor with about half a dozen huge nylon-web cargo straps. Those straps had mean and powerful ratchet buckles capable of crushing the sheet metal box practically flat and I was a little nervous as a couple of corporals began to reef them down. I muttered something about certification for such an "installation" and the answer came back "...no problem...its cargo isn't it?" and that was the end of that.
The GSC spectrometer in the C-130
"HERCULES" military aircraft
I reappeared before six o'clock, not really having slept much and we took off in the giant machine at about 7.30 a.m. and headed north over the winter landscape of Alberta to Great Slave Lake. The ferry flight took about two hours at an altitude which was far too high for the spectrometer to detect anything from the ground. When we reached the search area we descended to about 1500 feet and began a long survey, criss-crossing the frozen surface of a portion of the western section of the lake. I had my eyes glued to the strip chart recorder, one channel of which had a special ratio function programmed into it to recognise man- made as opposed to natural radiation. This I had done on the advice of the chief data processor of the American team, a delightful and fervent Mormon by the name of Thane Hendricks. The American spectrometers had minimal display capabilities as their equipment was designed to operate in small helicpoters where every extra pound mattered. The capability which we had to display things like running ratios on the strip chart recorder subsequently turned out to be a vitally important feature for real-time recognition of radioactive debris.
We flew for about eight hours without seeing any tell-tale blips on the chart recorder, after which we turned south and climbed up to an altitude of ten thousand feet or so for the return flight to CFB Namao. We arrived back somewhere about 8.00 p.m., by which time I was absolutely exhausted. There was even more of a circus atmosphere prevailing by then than when I had left twelve hours previously, and in the interim the word had got around that a super-sensitive Canadian spectrometer had joined the search, the only made-in-Canda high-tech scientific instrument to be part of the operation at that point. I found myself dogged by reporters anxious to know more about the "Canadian system" as the spectrometer had now been dubbed, I was desperately trying to make a coherent set of notes for Grasty and Holman, to give them some guidance on how to operate the system and what to look for. I was aching with fatigue at this stage and the continued interruptions did nothing for my diminishing concentration.
The Canadian Airborne Spectrometer ends the speculation
By this time it had been decided to include some members of the Canadian press on a Hercules flight with the "Canadian system". This was done to try and dispel the growing impression in the media that Canadians were just helpless by-standers in a dramatic scientific detective game, being played out in their country by an imported team of American Scientists and Engineers. This flight, with the press on board and Grasty and Holman as operators of the spectrometer, was scheduled to happen just as soon as the Hercules had been refuelled, following my flight with it. They took off at about 10.00 p.m., after I had given Grasty and Holman the notes and briefed them on some operational details. I retired to a room in the officers quarters and dropped into bed to catch up on some desperately needed sleep. I had to be on deck again for yet another twelve hour stint in the Hercules the following day, Friday the 26th of January, at around lunch time, following the return of the press flight, because the plan was to keep that Hercules searching around the clock. I slept the sleep of the practically dead for about twelve hours and had to hurry to make it onto the plane again without causing any delays. As a result, I did not make contact with Grasty and Holman before taking off. We did another segment of the survey area and returned to base sometime around 2.30 a.m.
I was greeted by a frantic crowd of reporters and members of the American team. It transpired that after inspection of the chart record following the press flight, a sizeable blip had been found on the ratio channel which corresponded with a location somehwere near Snowdrift, a small Indian hamlet on an island at the eastern end of Great Slave Lake in McLeod Bay. This literally set the world abuzz, because up to that point nothing had been found, other than the original false hit, after almost three days of continuous searching with three Hercules. Speculation by the media entourage had reached a fever pitch, which increased as successive press conferences failed to report any positive evidence that the satellite and its potentially deadly nuclear cargo had landed anywhere.
At that point however there was a glimmer of something, but it could not be confirmed until the gamma ray spectrum of whatever it was that caused the blip had been examined. That could not be done because the only one who knew the format for the recording of the spectra and other information on the magnetic tape was me, and I was incommunicado for the next twelve hours on another flight, or at least in no position to get into nitty gritty details over the radio without my files of notes.
It turned out by a quite extraordinay and serendipitous coincidence that the Amerians were also using NOVA minicomputers for their systems, although as was indicated earlier their systems did not have the sort of interactive capablility with a graphics display that ours did. They relied on post-processing of their data, which is why they had brought their "bread vans" along with them as mobile data processing centres. It meant among other things that our magnetic tape data could be read by their equipment and that they could produce hard copies of individual spectra for examination, but only if they knew how the data had been recorded.
I escaped from the press with Thane Hendricks and we closeted ourselves in one of the bread vans along with a couple of the other American physicists. I was able to provide him with the vitally important details and he was then able to use one of the utility programs in his voluminous library of software to read the tape and search for the spectra which had caused the blip. For one moment I was gripped by an awful misgiving, I could not remember actually having processed a tape from the new system to verify that the data were in fact being recorded properly.
Fortunately the data coming from the processing program quickly confirmed that the spectra were indeed all there, it was just a question of combing through hours of data on a one-second by one-second basis to find what we were looking for. The utility program was designed to do that in short order once certain criteria had been entered on the keyboard and it was not very long before it found the ones that had caused the blip and had "stacked" them (added them together) to make one very clear well-defined spectrum and print it out.
The search area that was combed for
radioactive debris from COSMOS-954
Once that news broke the place went from being a circus to something more like the trading floor of a stock exchange as frantic media people fought over any and every available phone to file their stories. The "Canadian spectrometer" was suddenly the star of the show and I was amazed to see my graphics display staring out at me from the T.V. screen during the eleven p.m. CBC-TV newscast that evening. Someone must have shot some footage of it during the press flight. The success was played up for all it was worth by the Candian media, anxious I think to make the point that some "made-in-Canada" science and engineering had been responsible for finding the first piece of radioactive debris (thereby focussing the search), and not the high-powered American team with their almost limitless resources.
Improved Navigation makes life easier
I found myself giving interviews to all sorts of people and wound up answering questions at some of the daily press conferences for a while. My immediate problem however was to get some reinforcements from the GSC to help Peter Homan take over the search missions of the Hercules with our spectrometer, which would now become routine and literally round the clock until further notice. Athur Darnley, (now in a senior management position) arranged this and within a couple of days we had a staff of half a dozen people from the GSC (including all of my group) to keep things going.
By that time the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), the nuclear regulatory agency in Ottawa, was involved and had sent a team of people to organise the actual recovery of the radioactive bits and pieces as they were located. One of the key problems was navigation. The search area was in a region of the North West Territories where even the few landmarks that could be seen in summer weather, were now under a blanket of snow stretching to the horizon in all directions. This was long before the days of the satellite Global Positioning System (GPS), and the only way to conduct a search like that was to use a radio navigation system like the Decca Navigator, which I had seen used on the hydrographic ship "Baffin" more than twenty years earlier.
The Americans used a more modern version of that called "MRS" for Microwave Ranging System. Like the Decca Navigator it required two transmitting beacons to be set up in advance which would allow coverage of an area about 80 km sqare. They had brought all the gear with them and it was subsequently adopted for use in the search. The transmitter beacons were not however designed to operate in arctic conditions, which meant that they would have to be "winterised". Col. Garland and his people organised that, with special insulated boxes being built at the workshops on the base to house the beacons and their batteries.
The system worked well and enabled the flight path of the aircraft to be plotted after-the-fact from the positioning data that was recorded from the beacons on the magnetic tape along with the spectrometry data. Military helicopters were used to set the beacons down and to move them from one sector of the search area to another as the operation slowly covered the entire impact trajectory of COSMOS-954. There were some problems however, I remember one occasion when we arrived at the search area, only to discover that one of the MRS beacons was dead. That was a real disaster because there was absolutely no way to find the damned thing. If they were both transmitting normally there was no problem, there was a procedure for zeroing in on either one of them, much like homing in on a rescue beacon, which is how the helicopters found them to service or move them. We spent the better part of six hours flying cirles at an altitude of about one thousand feet around the one that was working, to find the one that wasn't, with the navigator using binoculars.
As the search settled down to a routine operation, the media interest quickly waned and things became rather less dramatic and more business like. As was indicated earlier, there had been several communications gaffes committed by the powers that be in Ottawa (who were supposed to be in charge of everything), because of the difficulty of keeping up with the pace of the fast moving events at Namao. As soon as there was a breathing space, a delegation of General staff officers and senior civilian officials descended on Namao for a strategy meeting to make sure that there would be no more embarassing incidents. Arthur Darnley and I attended as part of the on-scene Canadian scientific contingent. It was a fairly formal affair with translation into french being recorded by a translator sitting at one end of the conference table. He spoke into a microphone contained in a rubber mask covering his nose and mouth, which prevented the sound of his voice from causing any distraction to the rest of the participants.
One member of the delegation was a rather colorful Brigadier General, who had been appointed as the senior public relations and press officer in Ottawa for everything to do with operation Morning Light. He had the rather thankless task, among other things, of briefing the press every morning on the latest developments. He had been caught off-guard several times (to his considerable discomfort) by pointed and probing media questions, and he was now adamant that every scrap of information must be transmitted to Ottawa HQ as soon as it was available on a daily basis.
That brought dissent among some of the on-scene participants, who argued that the available resources were just too limited to be tied up with writing comprehensive daily situation reports (SITREPS) to Ottawa, simply to keep the press at bay. At that point the visibly exasperated General lost his cool completely and shouted, his voice rising with indignation; "It's all very well for you people - you're not the ones who have to get up every morning and face those bloody newshounds in that f***ing bear pit". The effect on the translator was comical to behold, we saw his eyes widen above the rubber mask, while the rest of his face froze as he struggled to find an appropriate way to handle the situation. Before he could utter a word, the General swung round with his finger pointing at him and said "don't you dare translate that". The meeting dissolved into helpless mirth for about a minute, after which, as is so often the case when something breaks the tension, a sensible compromise was reached.
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