NASA Confirms Russian ASAT Test Doubled Debris Risk to ISS

NASA Confirms Russian ASAT Test Doubled Debris Risk to ISS

NASA confirmed today that the risk of orbital debris penetrating the International Space Station has doubled because of Russia’s recent antisatellite test. Shards from the destroyed Russian satellite careened towards the ISS, forcing the seven crewmembers, including two Russians, to secure in place for a day until the immediate threat passed. But the long-term threat remains from the increase in the background debris field. U.S. officials and other experts are calling for an end to debris-generating ASAT tests.

NASA ISS Program Director Robyn Gatens told a NASA advisory committee today that the November 15, 2021 Russian ASAT test forced the Expedition 66 crew to implement safe haven procedures, closing hatches to parts of the ISS and sheltering in the Soyuz and Crew Dragon spacecraft that could return them to Earth if worse came to worse.

ISS Expedition 66 crew, L-R: Pyotr Dubrov (Russia), Thomas Marshburn (NASA), Anton Shkaplerov (Russia), Raja Chari (NASA), Mark Vande Hei (NASA), Kayla Barron (NASA), Matthias Maurer (ESA).

Russia denied the test imperiled the crew, but Gatens said the threat of a piece of debris penetrating the ISS now has doubled to one chance in 25,000-33,000 orbits, versus one in 50,000 orbits prior to the test. The ISS does about 6,000 orbits a year.

Presentation to the NASA Advisory Council Human Exploration and Operations Committee by Robyn Gatens, NASA ISS Program Director, January 18, 2021.

Orbital debris is a growing threat to the sustainable use of space and kinetic-energy ASAT, or KE-ASAT, tests since 2007 by China, India, and Russia have added considerably to the population of debris in low Earth orbit. The 2008 U.S. Burnt Frost exercise also created debris although it all has reentered since then. Some consider that an ASAT test, but others insist it was a necessary action to protect the world’s populace from dangerous chemicals that could be released during an uncontrolled reentry by a malfunctioning U.S. military satellite.

The Secure World Foundation tracks how much debris has been created by KE-ASAT tests and how much remains in orbit. The United States and Soviet Union tested ASAT systems since the early days of the Space Age, but there was a long pause after the end of the Cold War, broken only by China’s test in 2007. According to the SWF, that test created 3,537 pieces of trackable debris, of which 2,809 remain in orbit today. The U.S. 2008 Operation Burnt Frost generated 174 pieces, but none remain. India’s 2019 test created 130 pieces, of which only 11 are still in orbit.

Russia’s recent test has not been added to the spreadsheet, but U.S. Space Command reported that 1,500 pieces were being tracked and the test likely would generate hundreds of thousands more smaller pieces.

John Plumb, nominee for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, testifying at his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, January 13, 2022.

Last week, President Biden’s nominee to be Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy added his voice to those calling for an end to debris-creating ASAT tests. During his confirmation hearing, John Plumb endorsed the call by Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks for all countries to cease such tests.

“I fully agree with what Deputy Secretary Hicks said at the first National Space Council meeting for the Biden Administration that the Department of Defense is in favor of banning kinetic antisatellite tests by all nations.”

In recent days a group led by former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Doug Loverro urged the United States to take the first step by declaring a unilateral ban, and Victoria Samson and Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation argued for a global ban in a recent issue of Scientific American.

Meanwhile, the ISS as a collaborative effort among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries operating through the European Space Agency continues seemingly unaffected by the debris threat or terrestrial geopolitical tensions. Shkaplerov and Dubrov will make a spacewalk tomorrow supported by their American and European colleagues inside the space station, all televised by NASA TV.

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