On Nov. 15, 2021, U.S. officials announced that they had detected a dangerous new debris field in orbit near Earth. Later in the day, it was confirmed that Russia had destroyed one of its old satellites in a test of an anti-satellite weapon.
US Space Command said Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite, or DA-ASAT missile, striking Russia satellite and creating a debris field in low-Earth orbit of more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris that is also likely to generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris. The debris came from a defunct Soviet satellite called Cosmos-1408, destroyed deliberately in a test of a Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) device.
Anti-satellite weapons, commonly referred to as ASATs, are any weapon that can temporarily impair or permanently destroy an orbiting satellite. The one that Russia just tested is known as a direct ascent kinetic anti-satellite weapon. These are usually launched from the ground or from the wings of an airplane and destroy satellites by running into them at high speeds.
“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” said US Space Command commander Gen. James Dickinson. “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. Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”
Larger pieces are easier to track and avoid but it’s difficult to track pieces smaller than 4 inches (10 centimeters). Even small debris can still pose a major threat though. Space debris is often traveling faster than 17,000 mph around the Earth. At that speed, pieces of debris could destroy any spacecraft or satellite it collided with. In the 1980s, a Soviet satellite broke up as a result of a suspected debris strike.
More worrisome is the danger debris poses to crewed space missions. In July 2021, one of the International Space Station’s robotic arms was struck by a piece of debris that put a 0.2-inch (0.5 cm) hole clean through a part of the arm.
There are currently seven astronauts on the space station, including NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov as well as the newly arrived Crew 3 mission team, NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer.
NASA said the “crew was awakened and directed to close the hatches to radial modules on the station,” while hatches between the US and Russian segments remained open.
“An additional precautionary measure of sheltering the crew was executed for two passes through or near the vicinity of the debris cloud,” NASA’s statement said. “The crew members made their way into their spacecraft shortly before 2 a.m. EST and remained there until about 4 a.m. The space station is passing through or near the cloud every 90 minutes, but the need to shelter for only the second and third passes of the event was based on a risk assessment made by the debris office and ballistics specialists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.”
During a news briefing on Monday (Nov. 29), Dana Weigel, NASA’s deputy manager of the International Space Station program, shared that there is typically a one-in-2,700 chance that a piece of space debris might puncture a spacesuit during a spacewalk but Russia’s ASAT test increased this risk by 7%.
“Unfortunately when you have a debris event like this and you get a lot of really small pieces scattered around, it just becomes part of the average environment,” Weigel said, adding that “though the 7% is a small increase that is well within the flux that we see in the natural environment, so it’s not elevated over what we’ve seen.”
There is no international treaty officially forbidding ASAT tests, but like previous ones, this test was a display of force that won’t 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 incident will provoke additional tests from other countries wishing to prove that they have similar capabilities.