From Academic Kids

Radar-equipped Ocean Reconnaissance SATellite or RORSAT is the western name given to the Soviet Upravlenniye Sputnik-Aktivny (US-A) satellites. These satellites were launched between 1967 and 1988 to monitor NATO and merchant vessels using active radar. RORSATs are a sub-class of Cosmos satellites.

For the surveillance radar to work effectively, RORSATs had to be placed in low earth orbit. Had they used large solar panels for power, the orbit would have rapidly decayed due to drag through the upper atmosphere. Hence the majority of RORSATs carried type BES-5 nuclear reactors fuelled by uranium-235. Normally the nuclear reactor cores were ejected into high orbit (a so-called "disposal orbit") at the end of the mission, but there were several incidents, some of which resulted in radioactive material re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.


Notable incidents

  • RORSAT launch failure, April 25 1973. Launch failed and the reactor fell into the Pacific Ocean north of Japan. Radiation was detected by U.S. air sampling airplanes.
  • Cosmos 954. The satellite failed to boost into a nuclear-safe storage orbit as planned. Nuclear materials re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on January 24 1978 and left a trail of radioactive pollution over an estimated 124,000 km² of Canada's Northwest Territories.
  • Cosmos 1402. Failed to boost into storage orbit in late 1982. The reactor core was separated from the remainder of the spacecraft and was the last piece of the satellite to return to Earth, landing in the South Atlantic Ocean on February 7 1983.
  • Cosmos 1900. The primary system failed to eject the reactor core into storage orbit, but the backup managed to push it into an orbit 80km (50 miles) below its intended altitude.

Other concerns

Although majority of the nuclear cores were successfully ejected into high orbits, these orbits still decay. If left untouched, the highly radioactive cores will return to the Earth's atmosphere after several hundred years.

RORSATs have also been identified as a prime cause of space debris orbiting some 950 km (590 miles) above Earth. Design flaws in the satellites have led many to discharge their sodium-potassium (NaK) eutectic alloy coolant into orbit. It is estimated that there are 110,000–115,000 (possibly frozen) droplets measuring up to 50–70 mm in diameter. Since the metal coolant was irradiated with neutrons from the nuclear reactor it will contain quantities of the radioactive argon-39, which has a half-life of 269 years.

American radar satellites

The United States National Reconnaissance Office operates a series of terrain-mapping radar satellites known as Lacrosse. These do not have a maritime capability, but the U.S. Air Force and Space Command are developing a satellite constellation known as Space-Based Radar (or SBR.) SBR will fulfill the maritime function of RORSATs, as well as have the ability to track aircraft and potentially ground-based vehicles. SBR would operate in conjunction with the Air Force's E-10 MC2A aircraft.

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