Debris From Russia Weapon Test Endangers ISS Crew, U.S. Says
(Bloomberg) -- A Russian weapons test that blasted a satellite out of orbit on Monday spewed debris and endangered seven crew members on the International Space Station, according to U.S. and British authorities.
Russia denied it put the crew at risk.
The ground-launched, anti-satellite missile destroyed one of Russia’s own satellites, generating more than 1,500 pieces of debris and hundreds of thousands of smaller chunks, according to the U.S. State Department.
“We call upon all responsible spacefaring nations to join us in efforts to develop norms of responsible behavior and to refrain from conducting dangerous and irresponsible destructive tests like those carried out by Russia,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
Five astronauts and two cosmonauts are aboard the space station, which is linked with two craft that carried passengers from Earth -- the U.S. SpaceX Crew Dragon and a Russian Soyuz. The crew was awakened and directed to close hatches between modules on the orbiting platform and then retreated into the Soyuz and Crew Dragon crafts for safety when the space station neared the debris field, according to NASA.
“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,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.
Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed the test took place successfully Monday but dismissed allegations the debris posed or could pose a danger to the space station or other orbiting craft. Calling the U.S. reaction “hypocritical,” the Ministry said Washington is working on space weapons that Moscow views as a threat.
Russian space agency Roscosmos issued a statement earlier Tuesday saying, “The top priority for us was and remains ensuring the unconditional safety of the crew” of the International Space Station.” The agency’s director plans to discuss the matter Tuesday by telephone with NASA, Tass reported, citing a source it didn’t identify.
The Defense Ministry said the test destroyed a disused Soviet Tselina-D satellite launched in 1982.
LeoLabs Inc., a private space-object tracking company, said data showed “multiple objects” near the expected location of Cosmos 1408, which NASA said was a Soviet signals-intelligence satellite of the Tselina series.
The American military tracked the event and said debris could remain aloft for decades, posing a significant risk to the crew on the International Space Station and other human spaceflight activities, as well as multiple countries’ satellites.
“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” said Army General James Dickinson, U.S. Space Command commander.
Ben Wallace, the U.K. defense secretary, tweeted that “The debris resulting from this test will remain in orbit putting satellites and human spaceflight at risk for years to come.”
The debris is in low-Earth orbit, an altitude that has attracted companies eager to cash in on reduced launch costs and a growing appetite for data and communications.
There was no immediate indication that the newly formed debris threatened any commercial craft.
There are about 4,550 operating satellites in orbit, with 3,790 in low-Earth orbit, according to a Sept. 1 tally by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Companies operating in low-Earth orbits include Elon Musk’s SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which has sent aloft more than 1,800 satellites.
More than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or “space junk,” are tracked by the Department of Defense, according to NASA. Near-Earth orbits hold much more debris that’s too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions.
Because debris and spacecraft are traveling at extremely high speeds (approximately 15,700 miles per hour, or 25,000 kilometers per hour), an impact of even a tiny piece of orbiting junk with a spacecraft could create big problems, according to the space agency.
Moreover, chunks of a smashed satellite can disperse into an elliptical orbit, with some of the debris hundreds of kilometers higher or lower than the undisturbed orbit, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, a collaboration between Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution, said in a tweet.
“Debris-generating anti-satellite tests are a bad idea and should never be carried out,” McDowell tweeted.
Space debris is a growing problem as thousands of satellites are launched, populating orbits more quickly than they are removed by active means or orbital decay.
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