A satellite was destroyed by a Russian ASAT missile, leaving a debris field in the ISS’s orbit.

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The space station came within inches of colliding with a huge piece of debris on two occasions.

Russia decommissioned one of its satellites over the weekend by hitting it with a ground-to-space missile. The anti-satellite (ASAT) test, according to the United States Space Command (USSC), caused a massive debris cloud that dispersed across low-Earth orbit. It claims to be tracking over 1,500 pieces, but thousands more are too minuscule to be tracked.

On Monday, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos (Роскосмос) tweeted that it had astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS) move into their spacecraft as it passed by an “object.” As of 9:39 am EST, Roscosmos reports the ISS is in the “green zone.”

Later, NASA confirmed that US ISS personnel undertook emergency procedures. Ballistic specialists at NASA assessed the situation and had the crew close off radial modules on the station and shelter in their spacecraft from 2 am to 4 am EST Monday morning. During that time, the ISS passed the debris twice. The space station completes one Earth orbit roughly every 90 minutes.

Indeed, Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell plotted the orbit of the debris field and overlayed it on the ISS’s path, and found that it crosses through or near the space junk about every 93 minutes. He correctly postulated that Russian satellite Kosmos-1408 was the source of the debris.

NASA officials are not pleased.

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“I’m outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated. “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.”

Likewise, the US Department of Defense chastised Russia, calling the test “irresponsible.” and said it would have lasting effects on space efforts.

“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” said USSC Commander General 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.”

The United Kingdom Space Command condemned Russia’s action as well.

Yesterday’s event was not the first time the ISS has been in danger of colliding with space junk. Just days ago, on November 11, a docked Russian supply ship had to push the ISS out of the path of a piece of a destroyed satellite from a Chinese ASAT test. NASA has been tracking that debris since 2007.

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NASA will continue closely monitoring the Russian-created debris cloud to ensure the safety of the ISS crew and those of future missions. Knowing the proximity of space junk to manned craft is vital to astronaut safety. Depending on the debris trajectory, collisions at speeds above 17,000 MPH (ISS orbit speed) could occur, catastrophically damaging a spacecraft.

Private firm LeoLabs is also tracking the debris. It tweeted that it detected “multiple objects” near the location of “Cosmos 1408,” confirming McDowell’s guess that it was the Russian-owned satellite that was destroyed.

The USSC reports that it has been monitoring Russian DA-ASAT (direct-ascent anti-satellite) tests for years, but they have never struck an object. The last one was in December 2020. At the time that USSC said that it worried that a Russian DA-ASAT might eventually hit a satellite and create a dangerous debris field. Such damage is irreversible because there is no way to clean up space pollution.

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Image credit: Axiom Space, Inc (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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