Russia blows up a satellite and creates a dangerous cloud of waste in space

This morning, Russia destroyed one of its own satellites with a ground-based missile, creating thousands of pieces of debris that have spread out in orbit around the Earth, according to the U.S. State Department. The United States has identified at least 1,500 traceable pieces of debris from the incident, and many thousands less that cannot be traced, Ned State spokesman Ned Price said during a briefing.

The news comes in the middle of reports from Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, independently verified by The edge via NASA’s live feed, that the astronauts living aboard the International Space Station had to shelter in place this morning due to a cloud of space debris that appears to pass by the station every 90 minutes, the time it takes for the ISS to orbit the Earth. NASA has not yet confirmed whether the waste field passing the ISS is the same one created by the Russian anti-satellite or ASAT test, and the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicated that the waste field is a danger to the space station. “This test will significantly increase the risk for astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station, as well as for other human spaceflight activities,” Price told reporters. “Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of our space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims to oppose the creation of space weapons are irreparable and hypocritical.”

The US Space Command, which oversees the tracking of space objects and debris in orbit around Earth, said The edge in a statement that it was “aware of a waste-generating event” in space this morning.

“We are actively working to characterize the waste field and will continue to ensure that all space nations have the information necessary to maneuver satellites if they are affected,” the U.S. Space Command said in a statement. “We are also working with the cross-cutting body, including the State Department and NASA, on these reports and will provide an update in the near future.”

The US Space Command has been tracking ASAT tests from Russia over the past few years. In 2020, the US Space Command reported two tests of Russia’s ASAT technology, known as Nudol. However, both tests did not appear to actually destroy any targets in the room.

The private space tracking company LeoLabs confirmed on Twitter that it has observed that several objects are now at the location of an old Russian satellite called Kosmos 1408, which was rumored to be the target of the ASAT test. If so, it seems likely that the waste cloud created from the test is the same one that threatened the International Space Station this morning, according to space tracking expert Jonathan McDowell.

During NASA’s live feed recording from the International Space Station this morning, mission inspectors at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston discussed the cloud of debris that passed the astronauts. “We are one and a half minutes from the next waste field transit at this time,” a mission controller told the astronauts, according to audio from the live feed recorded by Space.com. “This will be a four-minute transit.”

During the first few debris passages this morning, NASA astronauts had shelter inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon, currently anchored with the ISS, which just brought four new astronauts to the space station last week. However, the astronauts eventually opened the hatch of their vehicle and entered the ISS, according to the live feed audio.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard and satellite tracker, calculated the time of the first waste field passage, which took place around 6 p.m. 02:06 ET this morning. He found that the passes have happened roughly every 93 minutes since the first pass. After finding out about the orbit of Cosmos 1408, he found that the paths of the satellite and the ISS come close to each other every hour and a half.

“What I showed was that this satellite’s orbital plane is actually right through the part of the ISS orbit where they get these warnings,” McDowell says The edge.

AST tests are often considered as policy measures that demonstrate a nation’s ability to take out satellites. But they are a source of concern for those in the space industry because of their propensity to cause gigantic fields of satellite fragments. These waste fields can stretch for many kilometers and jump to higher and lower altitudes. The resulting pieces of waste often vary greatly in size, and they can sometimes remain in orbit for years, threatening functioning satellites. Objects in low orbit around the Earth are moving at about 17,500 miles per hour, so if a fragment of space debris collides with another fast-moving satellite, it could cause significant damage or even create more fragments that then threaten other satellites.

China conducted a famous ASAT test in 2007, using a kinetic missile to destroy its Fengyun 1C satellite. The event created thousands of pieces of debris, some of which are still circulating across the Earth. In fact, the International Space Station had to increase its orbit last week to avoid one of the fragments from the satellite that was still in orbit. In 2019, India also conducted its own ASAT test, known as Mission Shakti, creating hundreds of dirt after taking out a decaying satellite.

The United States also conducted an ASAT test in 2008, known as Operation Burnt Frost. The US military destroyed a satellite launched by the National Reconnaissance Office, which was about to fall out of orbit. The satellite’s fuel tank contained more than 1,000 pounds of a toxic fuel called hydrazine, and the ASAT test was considered a way to protect people on Earth while training anti-satellite technology.

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