There was a group of travellers who came to the Northwest Territories in 1978 wanting to follow in the footsteps of Arctic explorer Jack Hornby. Instead, they came across a pile of mechanical wreckage. Amid Cold War tensions, they joked it might have been a Russian satellite. When the military arrived and immediately sent the group for radiation testing, the travellers realized their joke may have been a little too on the nose.
“This episode is certainly the North’s claim to fame,” says Yellowknife historian Ryan Silke. “Everyone has stories about it. There’s a lot of mystery and intrigue over it, as well, but also a lot of legitimate public fear of what it means for the health of Northerners.”
The Cosmos 954 satellite crashed northeast of Great Slave Lake on January 24, 1978. Most residents didn’t see the crash itself, as it happened far away from any communities, but when the impact site was reported four days later, both the Canadian and U.S. military showed up within 24 hours. Under the name Operation Morning Light, a team in protective and radiation-detecting gear arrived to clean it up.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) launched the uranium-powered satellite on September 18, 1977, to monitor ocean traffic. But within weeks of launch, there was a problem. By January 14, the Soviets confirmed they had lost control of the satellite and predicted it would re-enter the atmosphere 10 days later. Initially, the USSR said the satellite would disintegrate and burn up on re-entry, posing no real concern. But it soon became clear it would crash over Canada—with its radioactive core intact.
When the satellite came down to Earth, it left behind a trail of potentially dangerous radioactive debris, detectable by specialized machines that only seemed to work part of the time.
“They [Operation Morning Light] were coming up here, not really understanding the North and the landscape,” says Silke. “There was a lot of ignorance.”
Meanwhile, the communication between the government and the NWT communities was minimal. As the poem, “Cosmos Caper” by E.D. Cook describes, “So on went the days without any word, nothing was seen, but a lot was heard.”
In the end, the incident took eight months to clean up and nearly $14 million, to which the USSR eventually agreed to pay back $3 million. Decades later, the incident has continued to live on and played a role in putting Yellowknife on the map, says Silke.
Artist Nick MacIntosh further added to its legacy, with his painting Kosmos 954—on display at the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The comic-style artwork depicts a flaming satellite landing near Con Mine in vibrant colours and sharp lines.
“It’s one of those things that happen once every few decades,” says MacIntosh. “I’m assuming there’s not a lot of art out there depicting this event in history. It could very well be I’m the only one who has done something to commemorate
But if you ask Yellowknifers, many will have a story to tell about the Russian satellite that crashed in the barrens.