1988: Home Office leaves NI emergency team in dark as satellite falls to earth #20YearRule

“The first knowledge I had that the satellite body had burned up was on the BBC midnight news on my car radio on Saturday 1 October.”

Hardly what you’d expect to hear from the NI Emergency Committee who had been coordinating Northern Ireland’s preparations for a Russian satellite that was falling to Earth with a 1 in 2000 possibility that it would land on UK soil.

Back in August when the ‘1991’ government papers were released, I posted about the NI Emergency Committee’s planning (CENT/1/19/44A) in case a Russian satellite crash landed on Northern Ireland territory.

There was a worry that the Cosmos 1900’s safety system – supposed to push the satellite’s nuclear core up into a higher orbit while the rest of the satellite fell through the earth’s atmosphere – would fail since Russian ground control had lost contact with their satellite just five months after it went into orbit. Ultimately the satellite burnt up upon re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere late on 1 October 1988 and the reactor core continues to orbit the Earth every 99 minutes, some 450 miles above our heads.

Although now out of danger, civil servants in October 1988 found a lot of loose ends to tie up.

File CENT/3/220A [selective scans] newly released in the Public Records Office reveals that the officers of the Emergency Committee Secretariat (who were on standby for the satellite’s final descent) were not kept up to date by London colleagues. Papers describe the communications gaffe as “a minor shortcoming in the alerting arrangements”. That’s civil service code for being unnecessarily left in the dark and cold.

The Metropolitan Police informed the RUC, but the civil emergency jungle telephone failed to notify the NI emergency team. In a polite note to the Home Office, a request was made that NIO contacts should be added to the notification list for any future emergencies.

Northern Ireland’s “glossy” ‘Satellite Accidents’ plan was updated, thought was given “to allocate a more positive role to local authorities” (rather than keeping everything centralised) and internal memos discussed criticism of the press office’s handling of the Cosmos 1900 incident.

Questions were also asked about the legal backing for the RUC’s power to clear an area in the event a satellite was expected to fall onto it. A legal assistant clarified that they would be seen as acting “in pursuance of their duty to protect life” and “someone who fails to obey the instruction of a constable lawfully acting in the execution of his duty is guilty of wilful obstruction”.

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