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Russian anti-satellite test creates space station hazard

A Russian anti-satellite test sparked an orbital-debris emergency aboard the International Space Station today, followed by sharp protests from NASA’s administrator and other U.S. officials.

The incident, which involved the deliberate destruction of an obsolete Russian spy satellite known as Cosmos 1408, is likely to spur renewed debate over military rules of engagement in space and the nature of Russian (and Chinese) anti-satellite maneuvers.

The U.S. Space Command said Russia struck the one-ton satellite with a direct-ascent, anti-satellite missile, breaking it into more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and what’s thought to be hundreds of thousands of smaller bits.

“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,” U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, commander of the Space Command, said in a news release. “Space activities underpin our way of life, and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”

The trajectories for the debris cloud and the International Space Station come close to each other every 90 minutes, and that required the space station’s seven crew members to take cover today.

NASA said the crew was awakened and directed to close most of the hatches on the space station’s modules, while leaving the hatches between U.S. and Russian segments open.

The crew took shelter in their lifeboat spacecraft for a couple of hours, starting shortly before 2 a.m. ET (11 p.m. PT Nov. 14), NASA said. Based on a risk assessment, the crew was told that they could come out of their shelter after the third encounter with the debris cloud. Some of the station’s hatches will remain closed for another day.

In a tweet, Russian space officials said the hazardous object “moved away from the ISS orbit.”

“Friends, everything is regular with us!” Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, the space station’s current commander, announced afterward. “We continue to work according to the program.”

Everything was not so regular with U.S. officials, however. For years, U.S. military officials have been warning about the potential impact of Russian and Chinese anti-satellite tests. (India’s space program conducted an anti-satellite test in 2019, and in 2008, the Pentagon destroyed a crippled U.S. spy satellite in orbit — in what was portrayed as an effort to protect public safety.)

Last year, Pentagon policy adviser Brad Townsend warned that anti-satellite measures could set off a “new form of mutually assured destruction” in a world that’s increasingly dependent on satellite communications. Similar themes were struck several times today.

“We condemn Russia’s reckless test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile against its own satellite, creating space debris that risks astronauts’ lives, the integrity of the International Space Station, and the interests of all nations,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he agreed with Blinken.

“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,” Nelson said in a statement. “Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board.”

Nelson said “all nations have a responsibility to prevent the purposeful creation of space debris from ASATs and to foster a safe, sustainable space environment.”

NASA and the U.S. military said they would continue to track the debris cloud and respond accordingly to any hazards. A commercial orbit-monitoring venture, LeoLabs Inc., said it has already detected “well north of 100 new objects” in altitudes ranging from 270 to 320 miles (440 to 520 kilometers).

The space station can use its thrusters to shift its trajectory and avoid orbital debris. One such maneuver was executed last week to dodge a piece of space junk left over from a Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007.

The problems posed by orbital debris seem certain to become more acute, not only because of the rising threat of anti-satellite weapons, but also because of the proliferation of broadband internet satellites in low Earth orbit. There are currently about 4,550 operational satellites in orbit — and thanks to the projects being planned by SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon and other players in the mega-constellation race, that number could grow by tens of thousands in the decade ahead.

As the national security stakes grow higher, anti-satellite measures could become stealthier. Last month, Chinese researchers reported that they have developed a new type of anti-satellite weapon that could lodge itself in the thruster nozzles used by most satellites, remain there for long periods undetected, and then explode in such a way that the satellite’s failure would look like a thruster malfunction.

Update for 5 p.m. PT Nov. 16: The Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged the anti-satellite test but insisted that it did not cause an orbital hazard.

“The United States knows for certain that the resulting fragments did not represent and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities in terms of test time and orbit parameters,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted the ministry as saying.

The ministry said pieces of debris from the destroyed satellite would be monitored until they burn up during atmospheric re-entry.

Meanwhile, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he expressed his dismay about the test to Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin.

Rogozin said he had a detailed conversation with Nelson. “In short, and in Russian, we are moving on, ensuring the safety of our crews on the ISS, making joint plans,” Rogozin wrote in a tweet.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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