In a test of its missile technology, Russia destroyed one of its own old space satellites, littering Earth's orbit with fragments and forcing astronauts on the International Space Station to temporarily take shelter.
The cloud of debris was generated when Cosmos 1408, a 2,200-kg defunct signals intelligence satellite launched in 1982, was blown up by a Russian anti-satellite missile. The US Department of State condemned the experiment for endangering “human spaceflight activities.”
“Earlier today, the Russian Federation recklessly conducted a destructive satellite test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites,” department spokesperson Ned Price said at a press briefing on Monday. “The test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations.
“In addition, this will significantly increase the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station, as well as to other human spaceflight activities. Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of outer space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical. The United States will work with our allies and partners to respond to Russia’s irresponsible act.”
It is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts
The seven astronauts onboard the International Space Station were directed to close all hatches to external modules and climb into the Soyuz MS-19 and Crew Dragon capsules for safety. They remained there for about two hours, and will periodically close off and isolate sections of the ISS as the debris cloud crosses the station's path every 90 minutes or so, according to NASA.
"I’m outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action," fumed NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
"With its long and storied history in human spaceflight, it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts. Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board."
Only last week, the ISS performed an orbital burn to avoid any chance of smashing into the passing remains of a Chinese satellite that was blown up by Beijing.
The cloud of shrapnel that was once Cosmos 1408 will disperse and continue to occupy low-Earth orbit, where it all risks crashing into other objects. Some 1,500 pieces will probably remain in the region for decades. Small flecks of debris traveling at orbital speeds can cause huge amounts of damage, potentially setting off a chain reaction where collisions create more amounts of junk that go on to smash into more objects and so on.
This nightmare scenario, known as the Kessler syndrome, would make low Earth orbit a hostile environment as debris levels increase. It’d be difficult to launch future spacecraft without weighty armor and all existing satellites and space stations would be in danger of getting pelted by the junk.
“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,” US Space Command said in a statement, referring to the direct-ascent anti-satellite missile.
“Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”
Roscosmos – which can't wait to put its own space station in orbit and be done with the international science lab – was not immediately available for comment. ®