The International Space Station as seen from Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft on September 28, 2021.Photo: Roscosmos
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has spoken out about an anti-satellite weapons test that potentially sent debris into the path of the International Space Station yesterday, saying it’s “unthinkable” that Russia would endanger both American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts.
While sweeping through my news feeds early yesterday morning, I was startled to learn that the ISS crew was taking shelter on account of a newly emerged debris cloud in orbit. A few minutes later, I stumbled upon an unconfirmed report claiming that Russia had conducted an anti-satellite weapons test. Naturally, I connected the two stories together, but I quickly dismissed the possibility, telling myself that Russia couldn’t possibly be that idiotic. I was wrong. I’m now very pissed off—and I’m not alone.
In a statement issued yesterday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he’s “outraged” by this “destabilizing action.” Given its “long and storied” history in space, “it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts,” Nelson said. “Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board.” To which he added: “All nations have a responsibility to prevent the purposeful creation of space debris from ASATs and to foster a safe, sustainable space environment.”
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Russia’s “destructive satellite test of a direct ascent anti-satellite missile,” as U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price described it yesterday, resulted in the deliberate destruction of Russia’s Kosmos-1408 satellite, which had stopped working many years ago. The test created “more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris” that “will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris” over time, according to U.S. Space Command. The ASAT test has produced thousands of fragments that are now careening above Earth at speeds reaching 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 km/hr). At these velocities, even the smallest objects can pose a severe collision hazard.
The new debris field currently ranges in altitude from 273 to 323 miles (440 to 520 km), according to space debris tracking firm LeoLabs. Energy from the impact scattered debris both above and below the Kosmos-1408 orbital path. The ISS orbit, at an altitude of 260 miles (420 km), is slightly below the debris field, but the orbits intersect along the vertical plane. The debris cloud will disperse over time, creating a kind of shell around Earth. Nelson told the Associated Press that the risk to astronauts is now four times greater than it was prior to the Russian ASAT test.
Yesterday, all seven crew members aboard the ISS were required to shelter inside either a SpaceX Crew Dragon or a Soyuz capsule docked outside. The spacecraft were lifeboats at the ready, providing a way for the astronauts to return home in the event the station became damaged by the debris. The crew huddled inside the spacecraft from 2:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. ET, during which time the ISS made its closest approach to the debris field on two occasions. Thereafter, the crew performed a routine every 90 minutes, in which ISS hatches were closed each time the space station got near the debris cloud.
In its own statement, Roscosmos did not explicitly touch upon the incident, merely saying: “For us, the main priority has been and remains to ensure the unconditional safety of the crew.”
“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, said in a statement. “The debris created by Russia’s DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers.”
Dickinson said Russia is pursuing counter-space weapon systems that “undermine strategic stability and pose a threat to all nations,” but naturally he failed to mention that the U.S. has expressed zero interest in banning ASAT weapons.
As AP reports, Russia’s Defense Ministry has confirmed the test, but it says the ISS was never in any danger and that “the U.S. knows for certain that the resulting fragments, in terms of test time and orbital parameters, did not and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities.” This is a supreme scoop of horseshit, of course, as Russia cannot predict how the newly spawned debris field will affect the safety of low Earth orbit over the course of the next few years and even decades.
To date, four countries have tested ASAT weapons: the United States, Russia, China, and India. The U.S. test in 2008 and the India test in 2019 took place far below the space station’s orbit, according to AP. China’s test from 2007 produced upwards of 2,000 fragments, one of which prompted an emergency maneuver of the ISS just last week. Evasive maneuvers will become increasingly commonplace should ASAT tests continue.
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