Soviet-era Spy Satellite Burns Up Harmlessly In Earth's Atmosphere
February 17, 2014

Soviet-era Spy Satellite Burns Up Harmlessly In Earth’s Atmosphere

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Fragments of a Soviet-era spy satellite, which was expected to crash back to Earth, had instead burned up on reentry into the atmosphere on Sunday.

Colonel Dmitry Zenin, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, told Itar-Tass news agency that Kosmos-1220, a military signal intelligence satellite, reentered Earth’s atmosphere and burned up at about 5:58 p.m. local time (8:58 a.m. EST).

The satellite, which had been in orbit around Earth since its launch in November 1980, was only commissioned for a few short years. Once its mission operatives ended in 1982, Kosmos-1220 continued on, however. The satellite was part of then-Soviet Union’s naval missile targeting system.

Russian Space Command had been monitoring the satellite’s descent with electronic and laser-optic systems and was expecting Kosmos-1220 to soon crash back to Earth, reported, citing RIA Novosti.

There had also been some level of concern that the satellite might also land on a civilian population, however expert analysts were confident that the craft, if surviving reentry, would land in the Pacific Ocean.

Any falling space junk does offer some level of unease, but rarely do any ever hit populated areas, even when they do survive reentry. Still, accidents have occurred in the past.

According to NASA, an average of one fragment of space junk survives Earth’s atmosphere daily, but hardly anyone ever notices. Furthermore, records of any property damage throughout the history of reentries remains negligible.

A much bigger threat is the number of floating debris that poses a significant threat to the International Space Station.

As reported by Fox News, NASA says there are more than 800 bits of space debris that pose a threat to the orbiting lab. Of these, 10 percent are spacecraft, about a third are rocket bodies and the rest are miscellaneous bits of debris.

Some of the floating space debris in orbit weighs in excess of several metric tons, according to the Orbital Debris Program Office.

The burning reentry of Kosmos-1220 follows a similar uncontrolled descent by a European-owned spacecraft late last year.

However, while Kosmos-1220 burned up on reentry, the ESA’s GOCE satellite made it to Earth, but crashed harmlessly into the ocean.

Another decommissioned Soviet-era satellite followed a much different path than Kosmos-1220. That satellite crashed into an unoccupied region of Canada in 1978, spreading radioactive debris and leading to a lengthy clean-up mission. And another Soviet-era satellite crashed into a US telecommunications satellite in 2009, sending thousands of pieces of space junk across Earth’s orbit.