The Russian rocket re-entry
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At 21.07 GMT on the evening of 1980 December 25 (i.e. a mere six hours before the supposed UFO landing in Rendlesham Forest) the Russian Cosmos 749 rocket re-entered over north-west Europe and was widely reported as a UFO. News reports of these sightings on national radio that night could have put the idea of UFO activity into the minds of the airmen at RAF Woodbridge, but there is no evidence that this re-entry had any direct connection with the later events in Rendlesham Forest.
A report on the re-entry the Cosmos 749 rocket can be found in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association (1981, vol. 91, page 561). It broke up during re-entry, and the last fragment is thought to have burnt out somewhere east of the coastal town of Clacton in Essex. Any surviving fragments would have fallen into the North Sea, and hence have been unrecoverable. As far as I am aware, no fragments from this re-entry were ever detected on radar, but it is possible that the radar tapes were examined to see if anything did get through and this may explain some of the stories about radar checks that were later attributed to the Rendlesham Forest UFO.
In her 1998 book UFO Crash Landing?, Jenny Randles suggests that the NSA on Orford Ness had fired an energy beam into space to ‘jam the electronics on the Soviet military satellite and deflect its orbital path causing it to burn up in a controlled fashion’. She names the source of this energy beam as a secret radar project called Cobra Mist. And in a subsequent book, The UFOs That Never Were, she goes on to claim that the flightpath of the incoming debris altered ‘as if something caused the trajectory to be deflected’.
Rocket, not satellite
To assess the credibility of that idea requires some background information. Firstly, the object that re-entered was not what most people would think of as a ‘real’ satellite. It was in fact the upper stage of the carrier rocket that launched Cosmos 749 over five years earlier, in July 1975. (It is usual for the top stage of a launch rocket to go into orbit with the satellite, and is a major contributor to the amount of ‘junk’ in orbit). As such it was a dead, inert cylinder of metal, and there would have been no way to command it down even if anyone had wanted to do so. What’s more, the re-entry started 1,500 miles away over North Africa.
The real Cosmos 749 satellite had in fact re-entered three months earlier, in September 1980. It was an electronic eavesdropping satellite but it was not the type of satellite designed to be brought back to Earth, nor was it nuclear-powered. And the British Astronomical Association research paper referenced above makes it clear that Jenny’s claim that the incoming object somehow changed course is simply wrong.
Now for some information about Cobra Mist. It was an over-the-horizon radar and as such was designed to detect missiles coming from Russia and the eastern bloc over azimuths 19.5° to 110.5° clockwise from true north, whereas Cosmos 749 came in from the southwest. What would have been needed here was not an over-the-horizon but an over-the-shoulder radar.
According to FOIA documents made available on
the radar never worked successfully. It was closed at the end of June 1973, over seven years before the Rendlesham Forest UFO sighting, and the hardware dismantled. The closure was publicly announced by the MoD that same month in 1973 (not 1983, as Jenny has it on page 189 of UFO Crash Landing). See also this Wikipedia entry and this link.
Although the Cosmos 749 re-entry sparked a rash of UFO sightings that were reported on national radio news that night and might well have put the airmen at RAF Woodbridge on ‘UFO alert’, there is no evidence to suggest that it had any other connection with the later events in Rendlesham Forest.
Content last revised: 2020 December
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