Russia Confirms ASAT Test, Denies Debris Threat

Russia Confirms ASAT Test, Denies Debris Threat

Russia confirmed today that it conducted an antisatellite test against one of its own satellites yesterday, but denied resulting debris will pose harm to other satellites or space stations. Bragging about the accuracy of the system, Russian officials insisted they violated no international agreements and did nothing that other countries have not done in the past. Meanwhile, the heads of the U.S. and Russian civil space agencies spoke via telephone and agreed on the need to protect the safety of the crews on the International Space Station.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Photo credit: Russian government website.

Russia’s Defense Ministry issued a statement today confirming it tested its antisatellite system against a defunct Russian Tselina-D satellite that had been in orbit since 1982, but accused the United States of overstating the threat posed by debris. “The United States knows for certain that the resulting fragments did not represent and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities in terms of test time and orbit parameters.” It also noted that such tests have been conducted in the past by the United States, China, and India.

Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning for the Secure World Foundation, told that he is “disappointed Russia is not taking this more seriously” and “this test and their reaction calls into question their commitment to dealing with the threats to the long-term sustainability of space and their expressed desire to prevent an arms race in outer space.”

SWF maintains a spreadsheet of all ASAT tests, how much debris was generated and how much remains in orbit. It also has a series of fact sheets listing ASAT tests by country and its annual Global Counterspace Threats report describes ASAT and other counterspace systems by country.

The Soviet Union conducted a number of co-orbital ASAT tests in the 1960s-1980s, five of which created debris. The United States conducted one debris-generating direct-ascent kinetic ASAT test against a U.S. satellite in 1985 and in 2008 intercepted another U.S. satellite with a missile to break it apart in orbit because it had malfunctioned and would have posed a threat if it reentered intact. China created over 3,000 pieces of space debris in a 2007 ASAT test, most of which remain in orbit and must be dodged by satellites and space stations. India’s 2019 ASAT test was designed to minimize the amount of long-lived debris, but some pieces remained in orbit longer and reached higher altitudes than intended.

Brian Weeden, Secure World Foundation. Credit: SWF

SWF issued a statement today calling on those four countries “to declare unilateral moratoriums on further testing of their antisatellite weapons that could create additional orbital debris and to work with other countries towards solidifying an international ban on destructive ASAT testing.”

Debris-generating tests like this may undermine the long term sustainability of Earth’s orbital environment, but they do not violate any treaties. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans only nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.  Efforts at crafting a treaty to ban ASATs or space weapons in general have failed decade after decade over basic issues like defining what an ASAT or space weapon is since many space systems could be used for civil or military purposes.

Led by the United Kingdom, international discussions at the United Nations right now are focused instead on establishing consensus norms of behavior that would allow space actors to call out offenders and use soft power to modify their actions. On November 1, the U.N. First Committee adopted a U.K.-led proposal to create an Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) to begin working on such norms. The U.N. General Assembly will vote next month on whether to approve it. Weeden said the OEWG comes at a good time and “hopefully there will be a willingness among all countries to work towards a prohibition on such testing in the future, as well as taking steps to clean up the existing orbital debris and put in place an international space traffic management framework.”

Russia does not seem affected by the negative response to yesterday’s test, however. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu bragged that they “successfully tested a cutting-edge system” that hit its target “with precision worthy of a goldsmith.” He insisted “the remaining debris pose no threats to space activity.”

The United States and others strongly disagree. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is particularly worried about the safety of the four NASA and one European astronauts and two Russian cosmonauts on the International Space Station.

Yesterday Nelson said it was “unthinkable” that Russia would endanger them as well as China’s taikonauts on their own space station.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Several high-level NASA officials are in Moscow today at a prescheduled meeting to discuss joint activities between NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos Space State Corporation. Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that he and Nelson spoke by phone.

“At 19.00. Moscow time, I had a detailed telephone conversation with the head of the NASA administration, Senator Nelson. The parties stated … Okay. In short, in Russian, we are moving on, ensuring the safety of our crews on the ISS, making joint plans.” (Per Google Translate.)

Nelson responded to Rogozin’s tweet confirming they had spoken, but stressing his “dismay over the danger our astronauts and cosmonauts continue to face” on the ISS and that it is “critical that we ensure the safety of our people and assets in space — now and into the future.”

Joining in U.S. condemnation of the test were members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee, an FCC commissioner (the FCC has some authority over orbital debris issues in addition to assigning radio frequencies), and a growing number of companies whose satellites are also threatened by debris.

AIAA Executive Director Dan Dumbacher. Credit: AIAA

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) is in the midst of its industry-government-academia ASCEND (Accelerating Space Commerce, Exploration, and New Discovery) mega-conference and issued a statement on behalf of the “ASCEND community.”

ASCEND Executive Producer Rob Meyerson, former President of Blue Origin, said “dangerous actions like this test introduce risks to achieving our off-world future. The ASCEND community encourages the global aerospace community to strive for the safe and sustainable uses of space to benefit humanity and improve life on Earth.” AIAA Executive Director Dan Dumbacher called for stepping up U.S. efforts on Space Traffic Management for which congressional action is “urgently needed.”

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