After the Russian military smashed a defunct satellite, creating a cloud of dangerous debris, other powers may wish to prove they have similar capabilities


| Analysis

17 November 2021

Astronauts in the International Space Station had to take shelter as the station passed through a cloud of debris


On 15 November, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) were awoken and told to batten down the hatches and take cover. A cloud of debris from a smashed-up satellite was heading towards the station, and the seven astronauts sheltered in their Soyuz and Crew Dragon capsules, which are more heavily protected than the rest of the craft, for two hours as it passed. They repeated this 90 minutes later as the debris came around the planet again.

The debris came from a defunct Soviet satellite called Cosmos-1408, destroyed deliberately in a test of a Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) device. The test created more than 1500 shards of satellite large enough to track and hundreds of thousands of smaller bits, all hurtling around Earth about 485 kilometres up.

The ISS and all its passengers emerged from the cloud safely, and while it has since made several other close passes, none of them have caused any serious damage. But the debris could remain in orbit for years, endangering spacecraft and forcing satellites to manoeuvre out of the way.

After the test, the US government reacted quickly with outrage. “Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” said James Dickinson, commander of the US Space Command, in a statement. “The debris created by Russia’s [ASAT] will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk.”

The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, released an announcement stating: “For us, the main priority has been and remains to ensure the unconditional safety of the crew.” Of the seven crew members aboard the ISS during the test, two are Russian.

However, others in the space flight industry say that this test endangered all of the astronauts currently in orbit. “I’m outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. “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.”

This isn’t the only ASAT test that has been conducted, as the Russian Defense Ministry noted in a statement in which it also claimed that the debris “did not represent and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities”. China conducted a test in 2007 that resulted in some fragments that are still circling Earth – the ISS recently had to adjust its orbit slightly to avoid one. The US conducted one in 2008, and India did as well in 2019, but both of those tests destroyed satellites in relatively low orbits, so the resulting debris fell and burned up in the atmosphere within months.

There is no international treaty officially forbidding ASAT tests, but like previous tests this was a display of force that will not go unnoticed by other space powers. The danger is that rather than resulting in laws against ASAT weapons, a subject that has long been contentious, this will provoke additional tests from other countries wishing to prove that they have similar capabilities. If that happens, it could make space a minefield of speeding garbage for decades or longer.

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