A Fiery End for Kosmos 1315 Over Hawaii

A relic of the Cold War surprised beach-goers and Hawaiian islands residents Sunday night, as Kosmos-1315 reentered the Earth’s atmosphere in a dramatic display.

The reentry occurred right around 11:00 PM Sunday night on August 30th local time (Hawaii is 10 hours behind Universal Time). Folks in the satellite tracking community had been following the predicted reentry for some time, which was projected for August 31st at 10:56 UT +/- an hour. That puts the Hawaii sighting right at the beginning of the window.

Image credit:
Kosmos-1315 reenters over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. Image credit: Lance Owens
“We were outside, about 11:00. I have a TV outside on our lanai (deck) and we had watched the 10:00 news, when we were just wrapping it up for the evening,” Hawaiian resident Lance Owens told Universe Today. “My wife sees this unreal thing in the sky. Our first description was it looked like someone dragging a “sparkler” across our sky like those old spaceship movies. It took at least a minute to get across our skyline. It appeared to be breaking up right in front of our eyes. I did not hear any boom, but the visuals were incredible!”
Image credit
A close-up of the reentry of Kosmos 1315 from Sunday night. Image credit: Lance Owens

Kosmos 1315 (Sometimes listed as Cosmos 1315) was an electronic signal intelligence (ELINT) satellite launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the then Soviet Union on October 13th, 1981. First developed in the late 1960s, Kosmos 1315 was a typical Tselina-D type component of the two-satellite Tselina ELINT system. Kosmos 1315 was launched atop a Vostok-2M rocket, the booster for which still remains in orbit today as NORAD ID 1981-103B. Kosmos 1315 was in a 533 x 574 km low Earth orbit.

Long-time satellite tracker Ted Molczan has been compiling a list of reentries that goes back to the dawn of the Space Age, and notes that this was the 256th reentry sighting he’s confirmed in his cataloging effort.

“Objects launched by Russia account for 205 sightings or 80 percent, followed by the U.S., which accounts for 40 sightings or 16 percent. China, Europe and Japan account for the remaining 4 percent,” Molczan told Universe Today. “Considering the vast areas of the Earth that have been under-reported, the total number of reentries seen during the Space Age probably is between 500 and 1000, the large majority lost to history.”

This was a fine example of a classic reentry versus a typical fireball or meteor train. Satellites typically have a slower reentry velocity, and you can see this in several of the videos captured of the event. Most fireball captures come from security and dashboard cams (remember Chelyabinsk?) or cameras that are already up and running recording another event, such as a concert or a football game. The famous Peekskill meteor in 1992 was captured in the background during a high school football game. Remember, during Chelyabinsk, the very first images of the event were from dashcams; minutes later, after everyone rushed to aim their hastily deployed mobile phone cameras at the contrail, we got the recordings of the blast wave.  The very fact that several folks grabbed their phones and managed to capture the reentry in progress on Sunday night (how fast can YOU have your phone out, camera running?) speaks to the slow, stately traverse typical of a satellite reentry.

The position of Kosmos-1315 at 9:17 UT. Image credit: Orbitron
The position of Kosmos-1315 at 9:17 UT. Image credit: Orbitron

…and folks on social media often try to get in on the hype during a breaking story involving a meteor train or fireball event. Feel free to try to be creative, but trust us, we’ve seen ‘em all. Some ‘meteor wrongs’ (to paraphrase Meteorite Man Geoff Notkin) that typically get recycled and advertised as new videos are: the reentries of Mir, Hayabasa, the aforementioned Peekskill event, Chelyabinsk, and screen grabs from the film Armageddon.

A typical Tselina-D style Kosmos series satellite. Image credit: Yuzhnoye Design
A typical Tselina-D style Kosmos series satellite. Image credit: Yuzhnoye Design

“As is common with reentries, a few people reported the phenomenon as a UFO. A couple of witnesses perceived the glowing fragments as individual craft of some kind,” Molczan told Universe Today. “Satellite orbits closely follow the curvature of the Earth’s surface, and they continue to do so as they begin their final descent during reentry. As reentry proceeds, velocity is lost due to drag, causing the descent to gradually become steeper, but to an observer, the motion appears to be nearly horizontal. By the time an object descends below about 30 kilometers, it will have lost nearly all of its forward velocity, and from there, any surviving fragments will descend almost vertically to the Earth.”

This final descent is similar to what’s known as ‘dark flight’ prior to a meteorite impact.

And though we usually get a few high interest reentries such as Phobos-Grunt or UARS every year, space junk is reentering worldwide weekly. The Aerospace Corp. keeps a running list of upcoming reentries, and the See-Sat-L message board is a great source of fast-breaking news.

It’s definitely a space junk shooting gallery out there. Keep those smartphones charged up and handy, and keep watching the skies!

Did a Piece of Mir Really Land in Massachusetts?

We love a good space debris mystery. Hey, who doesn’t, right?  Regular readers of Universe Today know that it’s a shooting gallery out there, from meteor fireballs caught on dashboard cams to rogue space junk reentries lighting up our skies. 

But an unusual story that made its rounds across the internet this past weekend caught our attention. What at first glance was a simple “Man finds space rock” story morphed into an extraordinary claim, which, in the words of the late great Carl Sagan, “demand extraordinary evidence.”

The find was made by Phil Green of Amesbury, Massachusetts. Mr. Green was searching the local riverbed for arrowheads when he came across the unusual find. The black pitted rock immediately struck him as something bizarre.  It didn’t register as metallic to his metal detector, but Mr. Green kept it in his backyard for about five years until it was noticed by a friend.

“I didn’t really think much of it, and then a fellow came over, saw it and said that’s a meteor,” Green told local reporters.

From here, the story takes a strange turn. Green told local reporters that the rock was sent off for analysis, only to be returned to him just a few weeks ago. The analysis confirmed that the rock was indeed from space… sort of. It also stated that the vitreous material “shows a composition similar to that used in ballast by the Soviet space program starting in the mid-1980s.”

And the word was out. The media quickly ran with the “Man finds a piece of Mir” story.

There are just a few problems with the tale. Mir reentered in 2001, six years before the 2007. A few articles do bother to note this, mentioning that Mir ended its career in the “so-called spacecraft cemetery of the southern Pacific Ocean,” about as far away from Massachusetts as you can get.

A few articles do also mention the possibility of a reentry of a Progress resupply vehicle being a potential source, or perhaps an unrelated Russian space vehicle.

But there seems to be a potential problem of the certification. Several articles state that the piece of debris coming from Mir was “confirmed by NASA.” However, Universe Today contacted NASA Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris Nicholas L. Johnson and NASA Headquarters official Joshua Buck, who both told us that no such NASA validation exists. Mr. Johnson went on to tell Universe Today that, “The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office has not been presented with any claim regarding debris from the Mir space station,” adding “I can tell you that it is not possible for debris from the Mir reentry to have landed in the U.S.”

A name that occasionally turns up in reports online as validating the find (withheld by request) also tells Universe Today that they had nothing to do with the discovery. Mr. Green or the original validation source  have thus far been unavailable for comment.

We did uncover two documented reentries that occurred over the general region over the last few decades. One is the reentry of Mir-R 1986-017B (The rocket booster that launched the core module of Mir) seen from a trans-Atlantic airliner on February 24th 1986 about 500 kilometres off of the east coast of Newfoundland. Another possible suspect is the June 26/27th 2004 reentry of a SL-12 auxiliary rocket motor with the NORAD ID 1992-088E, seen to the west from New Jersey to Ontario.

Like the International Space Station, Mir was placed in a 51.6° inclined orbit. This made it accessible from the Baikonur Cosmodrome as well as visits from the U.S. Space Shuttle. Payloads going to and from the station would cover an identical ground track ranging from 51.6° north to south latitude.

The story is also reminiscent of the reentry of debris from Sputnik 4, which struck a small town in Wisconsin in 1962. This was analyzed by mineralogist Ursula Marvin and confirmed to be of Russian origin.

A Progress spacecraft inbound for docking with the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA).
A Progress spacecraft inbound for docking with the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA).

Probably the biggest question in our minds is: what links the object back to an errant Russian spacecraft? What do they use for ballast, anyhow? How did they arrive at the often quoted “85% certainty?” of the object’s origin?

Still, the find does look like something interesting. The pitting and the melted fusion crust are all reminiscent of reentry. We’ll keep researching this story, and for the time being we’ll leave it up to you, the diligent and insightful readers of Universe Today, to make up your own minds on this strange and interesting tale.