Russia ASAT Test Destroys Old Satellite; ISS Crew Shelter in Return Capsules as Station Flies Near Orbital Debris

The scales of the space debris problem (Credit: ESA)

Updated on Nov. 15 at 4:35 PST with comments by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The United States has condemned a Russian anti-satellite test that destroyed a non-functioning 39-Soviet-era satellite that added more dangerous debris to Earth orbit.

“Earlier today, the Russian Federation recklessly conducted a destructive satellite test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said. “The test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations.

“This test will significantly increase the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station, as well as to other human spaceflight activities. Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long term sustainability of outer space, and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical. The United States will work with our allies and partners to respond to Russia’s irresponsible act,” Price added.

The seven-member international crew on the International Space Station was forced to take temporary refuge in their Russian Soyuz and American Crew Dragon transports on Monday while the station passed near a cloud of debris.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson released the following statement about the incident:

“Earlier today, due to the debris generated by the destructive Russian Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test, ISS astronauts and cosmonauts undertook emergency procedures for safety.

“Like Secretary Blinken, I’m outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action. 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. Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board.

“All nations have a responsibility to prevent the purposeful creation of space debris from ASATs and to foster a safe, sustainable space environment.

“NASA will continue monitoring the debris in the coming days and beyond to ensure the safety of our crew in orbit.”

LeoLabs, which tracks space traffic, said it has detected “multiple objects near expected location of Cosmos 1408. We will share supporting data as we gather it today.” Cosmos 1408 was a Soviet military surveillance satellite launched in 1982.

The growing amount of debris in Earth orbit is causing increasing concern as satellite operators plan to launch tens of thousands of more satellites into orbit.

The Pentagon issued a statement about the ASAT test.

“U.S. Space Command is aware of a debris-generating event in outer space. We are actively working to characterize the debris field and will continue to ensure all space-faring nations have the information necessary to maneuver satellites if impacted. We are also in the process of working with the interagency, including the State Department and NASA, concerning these reports and will provide an update in the near future,” the statement said.

Nujoud Fahoum Merancy, Chief of Exploration Mission Planning, tweeted a video of test of hypervelocity impacts on ISS laboratory module shielding.

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also condemned the Russian test.

“This destructive anti-satellite missile test by Russia shows a complete disregard for the security, safety and sustainability of space,” Wallace said. “The debris resulting from this test will remain in orbit putting satellites and human spaceflight at risk for years to come.”