ISS escapes space debris collision after Russian weapons test

Russia shot down one of its Soviet-era satellites in a weapons test on Monday, sending more than 1,500 pieces of traceable waste into space. This forced astronauts on the International Space Station to shelter for about two hours in two spacecraft that could return them to Earth in the event of an impending collision. Although the ISS appears to be in the open for now, experts say the situation is still dangerous. Satellite operators are likely to have to navigate around this new cloud of space debris for years and possibly decades.

In fact, Russia’s latest missile test may have increased the total amount of space debris, including discarded pieces of rockets and satellites in Earth’s orbit, by as much as 10 percent. These shards spin at incredibly high speeds and risk hitting active satellites that power critical technologies, such as GPS navigation and weather forecasting. Space debris like this is actually so dangerous that national security authorities are worried that it could be used as a weapon in a future space war. In fact, the State Department has already said Monday’s missile test is proof that Russia is more than willing to create waste that endangers the security of all countries operating in low-Earth orbit and even risks disturbing peace in space.

These risks have only increased the concern that we are far from solving the problem of space debris, especially as private companies and foreign governments send thousands of new satellites into orbit – which inevitably creates even more space junk.

Monday’s events, however, were more politically charged than your average incident of space debris. The Russian government launched a so-called anti-satellite test (ASAT), which, as the name suggests, is designed to destroy satellites in orbit. The missile was launched from a place a few hundred kilometers north of Moscow and hit a non-operational Russian spy satellite called Kosmos-1408, which had orbited the Earth since 1982. The satellite has now been broken into thousands of pieces that are currently whizzing around. Earth, at about 17,000 miles per hour, passes the International Space Station approximately every 90 minutes. While astronauts no longer need to shelter, the threat to the ISS or other satellites has not disappeared.

“I am outraged at this irresponsible and destabilizing act,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “With its long history in human spaceflight, it is inconceivable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts.” Nelson added that Russia’s actions were “ruthless and dangerous” and also threatened them aboard China’s Tiangong space station.

While Russia admitted to having destroyed a satellite in the latest test, its Ministry of Defense insisted that the event did not endanger the ISS.

Russia is one of four countries, including India, the United States and China, to blow up its own satellite using an anti-satellite missile. This trend is alarming because governments with AST systems can use technology to attack other countries’ satellites and turn space into a battlefield. But even though countries only target their own space objects, Russia’s missile test shows how governments can also use anti-satellite missiles to create waste that endangers any country, business or person operating in orbit. And again, once this waste is created, it can remain a threat for years. Last week, the ISS had to adjust its altitude by about a kilometer to avoid hitting space debris from a satellite that China shot down in 2007.

The problem of space debris is also only getting bigger. Right now, there are more than 100 million pieces of space debris larger than a millimeter in orbit around the Earth, according to NASA. And as of May, the Department of Defense tracked more than 27,000 larger pieces of orbital waste, but even smaller pieces can still pose a massive danger to other satellites and space stations due to the incredibly high speed they travel at.

“I do not think you can overestimate the danger of space debris at this point,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the U.S. Air Force School of Air and Space Studies, told Recode. “As you create more waste, the chances grow that that waste hits other things and just creates more waste.”

What makes the space junk problem particularly difficult is that no one has taken responsibility for it. According to the outer space treaty, the basis of international space law, countries remain the owners of the objects they send into space, so Russia technically still owns all the satellite fragments created by their missile test on Monday. There is no global consensus on what the punishment for creating space junk should be, and it is still difficult to trace and attribute different pieces of waste to different countries’ space operations.

Government agencies and private space companies are developing technologies to remove space debris, such as networks that could capture waste in orbit and devices that would push satellites into the atmosphere to dissolve. But there is concern that governments could use the same tools to dismantle another country’s satellites. At the same time, the cost of creating space debris – and removing it – is rarely included in the decision to launch a vehicle or satellite into space.

“In many ways, this is the same type of problem, an environmental problem that we’ve been dealing with on Earth in many, many forms,” ​​Akhil Rao, a Middlebury economist who has studied space debris, told Recode. “We have struggled with fisheries collapse, we have struggled with atmospheric pollution, [and] we have struggled with ozone depletion. ”

Right now, the best way we have right now is to alleviate the many risks of recycling waste, by not creating space junk in the first place. This can be done through better international cooperation or creating new financial incentives for private companies, but the sooner it happens, the better. Although we are generally able to navigate around the space junk that already exists, it will become more and more difficult as more waste picks up. And if we do not find a solution in time, we could end up in a situation where a low orbit around the Earth is so full of space debris that it is impossible to navigate.

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