Falling space station breaks up over Argentina

Published March 8, 1991|Updated Oct. 12, 2005

A Soviet space station the size of a railroad car plunged through the atmosphere in a "rain of fire" over Argentina on Thursday, ending a month of suspense over where it would land. The speculation had triggered panic in one Russian village, which shut down its businesses and schools for fear of falling debris.

The 40-ton Salyut-7 space station re-entered Earth's atmosphere early Thursday and "burned out of existence," the official news agency Tass said.

Pieces of the spacecraft fell on a sparsely populated area in the Andes mountains near the Chilean border, the Argentine government news agency Telam reported. It said Salyut-7 "triggered a rain of fire."

Soviet media have closely followed the descent of the 9-year-old spacecraft the past month. The lack of precise information about the landing, combined with the Soviet obsession with UFOs and widespread superstition, caused anxiety in at least one Russian village.

The government daily Izvestia reported civil defense officials in Upper Baskulchak, about 620 miles south of Moscow, ordered businesses and schools closed because of the fear debris would strike. Water in the village was turned off, people bought all the food in stores, and some residents fled, Izvestia reported.

As it turned out, Upper Baskulchak had nothing to fear.

The Argentine news agency said blazing pieces of the Salyut-7 complex could be seen from several towns in the provinces of Cordoba, Buenos Aires, Mendoza, San Luis, Neuquen and Chubut.

By late afternoon, there were no reports of injuries. No fragments were reported recovered.

Tass said that just before the spacecraft, traveling about 17,000 mph, entered the atmosphere at 6:47 a.m. (10:47 p.m. Wednesday EST), ground controllers tried to direct it toward water. However, there was not enough fuel to complete the maneuver.

The space station was put into orbit in April 1982, the last one in the Salyut series, which is the second generation of Soviet spacecraft. It hosted 10 crews, two of them international.

Tass said the station was supposed to stay in orbit several more years, "but solar activity suddenly increased in 1988, and the station began sharply to descend." Sunspots create solar winds, a stream of ionized hydrogen and helium that decays a spacecraft's orbit.

Soviet officials have said the space station, powered by solar energy and chemical batteries, contained no nuclear fuel or other dangerous substances.

In 1978, the Soviet Union's Cosmos-954 satellite went out of control about 10 weeks after launch and struck a lightly populated area of northern Canada.

The debris was dangerously radioactive after being contaminated by the satellite's reactor core. Canadian and U.S. experts located and destroyed the remains of the satellite.

The next year, the U.S. Skylab space station went out of control and crashed to Earth, with some of its pieces striking unpopulated parts of Australia.