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Russia's Nuclear Warriors
Cosmos 1382 Orbit

The large frame on the right in this movie illustrates the scene the former Soviet, now Russian Cosmos 1382 early-warning satellite sees as it moves along its highly elliptical orbit. (The yellow dot moving across this frame represents the sun.) The screen in the lower left shows the satellite's position along its orbit, while the screen in the upper left displays Cosmos 1382's ground track and the point on the Earth directly beneath the satellite. The author believes that Cosmos 1382 is the satellite that issued the false alarm on September 26th, 1983 -- the day shown here -- at a little after midnight Moscow time or about 20:15 Greenwich Mean Time.

In the large righthand frame, a rectangular marker appears just above the uppermost point of the Earth's surface. This is a hypothetical missile flying about 93 miles above Malmstrom Air Force Base, currently the site of the largest number of U.S. Minuteman III missiles. Note how this marker appears silhouetted against the black background of space over much of the satellite's 12-hour orbit. This is how a Minuteman missile would appear to the satellite, an effect that should reduce the chances that natural phenomena like sunlight reflecting off high-altitude clouds might cause a false alarm. However, on that fateful fall day in 1983, the sun aligned itself with the U.S. missile bases nearly perfectly for bouncing sunlight off clouds and into the satellite's sensors. The combination of these events -- near-perfect geometry, relatively unsophisticated technology, and a very new system that had not built up much operator experience -- triggered a false alarm of a nuclear attack.

Back to False Alarms on the Nuclear Front

Animation: Geoffrey Forden, MIT.

The Director's Story | False Alarms on the Nuclear Front
Global Guide to Nuclear Missiles | From First Alert to Missile Launch
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