Science

Space debris from Russian anti-satellite test will be a security threat for years

Space debris created by a Russian anti-satellite missile test will pose a threat to low-Earth orbit satellites as well as astronauts aboard the International Space Station for years to come, experts reveal.

The antisatellite test (ASAT) targeted the defunct Soviet surveillance satellite Kosmos 1408, which was orbiting at an altitude of about 404 miles (650 kilometers) above Earth. The 2-ton spacecraft, dead since the mid-1980s, broke into at least 1,500 traceable fragments immediately after impact, creating a large cloud of debris. Space debris has forced Russian astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to repeatedly take refuge in their transport vehicles.

Experts now warn that this space debris will continue to be a hazard for years to come, threatening satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), the most used region of space closest to Earth, as well as space station crews. .

Related: Worst Space Debris Events of All Time

In addition to the 1,500 traceable fragments generated by the test, the event also created hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces that are invisible to ground observers, the United States Space Command (USSC), which is responsible for military operations in space. outside, he said. in a sentence.

“USSPACECOM’s initial assessment is that the debris will remain in orbit for years and potentially decades, posing a significant risk to the crew of the International Space Station and other manned spaceflight activities, as well as to the satellites of various countries. “USSPACECOM said in the statement.

In fact, about half of the fragments could fall to Earth “in the next two years”, but the rest could remain at full speed through space for “more than a decade”, Hugh Lewis, director of the Astronautical Research Group from the University of Southampton. , the UK’s and Europe’s leading space debris expert, told Space.com.

“Once the fragments are cataloged, I expect to see many nearby passes with satellites and other objects through a wide range of LEOs, demonstrating the consequences for space safety,” Lewis said. “I would not be surprised if the ISS had to perform collision avoidance maneuvers for at least the next two years as a direct result.”

Related: The Most Dangerous Space Weapons Ever

Preliminary calculations suggest that the debris cloud will increase the number of evasion maneuvers performed by satellite operators worldwide by more than 100% in the coming years, Tim Flohrer, director of the Space Agency’s Office of Space Debris European Union (ESA), he told Space.com.

“The peak can even be significantly higher than 100%,” Flohrer added. “At this altitude of 400 to 500 kilometers, the fragments will not survive long. We expect them to slowly decompose over months and years, so the increased risk will remain significant after one or two years.”

In addition to the impact that this debris will continue to have on the International Space Station, SpaceX’s mega-constellation Starlink, which currently includes nearly 1,850 satellites, also orbits in the affected region, Flohrer added.

Experts and military leaders appeared shocked by the act, which will affect the long-term safety of all operations in low Earth orbit.

An artist’s concept depicting the near-Earth orbital debris field, based on actual data from NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office. (Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

“Russia has displayed a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability and long-term sustainability of space dominance for all nations,” US Army Gen. James Dickinson and US Space Command commander said in the statement. of the USSC. “Debris created by Russia’s DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to outer space activities for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers.”

In a statement to the Russian news agency Interfax, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the test, but claimed that its debris does not pose any risk to spacecraft in orbit.

“On November 15 this year, the Russian Defense Ministry successfully conducted a test, as a result of which the Russian spacecraft Tselina-D, which was in orbit since 1982, which was in orbit since 1982, was attacked.” said the Russian Defense Ministry, according to Interfax. “The United States knows with certainty that the resulting fragments did not and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft, and space activities in terms of test time and orbital parameters.”

The Russian space agency Roscosmos issued a separate statement on Tuesday (November 16) morning, which, however, does not directly mention the ASAT test.

“For us, the top priority has been and continues to be ensuring the unconditional safety of the crew,” Roscosmos said in the statement. “Adherence to this principle is established both in the basis for the production of space technology in Russia and in the program of its operation.”

While its impact and consequences have generated much more concern, this is not the first ASAT test in recent years. In 2019, India conducted an anti-satellite missile test, which, however, targeted a satellite much closer to Earth, at about 175 miles (282 km). Thus, most of the debris created by that attack entered Earth’s atmosphere within weeks or months, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

However, the impact of the Russian ASAT test will be much more severe due to the higher altitude of the target satellite. Debris from an ASAT test conducted by China in 2007, which targeted a satellite at an altitude even higher than 540 miles (865 km), remains a major source of collision hazard in low Earth orbit today.

Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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