Russian ASAT Test Creates Thousands of Pieces of Space Debris, Imperils ISS

Russian ASAT Test Creates Thousands of Pieces of Space Debris, Imperils ISS

The U.S. Government said today that Russia conducted an antisatellite test that generated 1,500 pieces of trackable debris and thousands that are untrackable. Calling it reckless and irresponsible, officials pointed out the debris threatens not only satellites, but the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station. ISS operations are being affected. The head of Russia’s space agency will meet with NASA officials in Moscow tomorrow at a previously scheduled meeting where this topic is certain to be discussed.

State Department spokesman Ned Price, November 15, 2021. Screengrab.

This afternoon, State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed that Russia “recklessly conducted a destructive satellite test of a direct ascent antisatellite missile against one of its own satellites.”

The first inkling that something was awry came from reports that the ISS crew — two Russians, four Americans, and one European — had to shelter in their Soyuz and Crew Dragon spacecraft earlier today and the orbiting facility was on a path to reencounter the debris every 90 minutes, or once per orbit.

U.S. Space Command initially issued a statement that they were tracking a debris event, but without attribution as to its cause.

“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.”

By mid-afternoon, the State Department and the Defense Department both addressed the issue during their daily briefings, but deferred to NASA as to whether the debris affecting the ISS was from the test.

The State Department’s Price said “Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long term sustainability of outer space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims opposing the weaponization of space are disingenous.” He declined to identify any specific steps the United States will take in response, going only so far as saying the United States will “work with allies and partners to respond” and “make very clear that this behavior is not something the United States will tolerate.”

Defense Department spokeman John Kirby, Novem bet 15, 2021. Screegrab.

Asked if Russia had told the United States in advance about the test, Defense Department spokesman John Kirby gave a succinct answer: “No.” The Defense Department shares the State Department’s concerns about the test, Kirby said, most immediately the debris itself, but more broadly about the capabilities Russia wants to develop that could threaten U.S. national security and that of other spacefacing countries.

Later in the day, U.S. Space Command issued a fuller statement. Gen. James Dickinson, Commander of U.S. Space Command, rebuked Russia for demonstrating “a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations.”

By evening, NASA was out with its own statement, finally officially confirming that the debris affecting ISS operations was indeed from the ASAT test and that the ISS crew had to shelter in their spacecraft because of it. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called Russia’s action “unthinkable,” endangering not just the U.S. and international partner astronauts on ISS, “but also their own cosmonauts” and threatening the three Chinese taikonauts on their space station, Tianhe.

The connection between the test and the debris cloud affecting the ISS was clear from non-government sources earlier in the day, however. Harvard-Smithsonian CFA astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan’s Space Report emailed that “I am certain the debris is from this test” based on his calculations and data from commercial companies that track space objects. They identified Kosmos 1408, a defunct Russian military satellite, as suddenly no longer in one piece. Knowing that Russia launches its Nudol ASAT system from the Plesetsk launch site and looking at associated Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs), McDowell could determine the launch, target, and where the debris was in relation to the ISS.  “We can link the Nudol launch to K1408 by the NOTAMs compared to the satellite orbit, and we can link K1408’s orbit to the times that the astronauts were told they were passing the debris cloud.”

A Secure World Foundation fact sheet lists 10 Nudol launches since 2014, of which at least four were intercept tests, but none were targeted against an actual satellite until today.

DOD’s Kirby stressed the need for a set of norms of behavior in space as to what is acceptable or not. The United States is already working with other countries, especially the United Kingdom, on the development of such norms through the United Nations.

Last December, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a U.K.-led resolution calling for “reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours.”  Less than three weeks ago, on November 1, the U.N.’s First Committee adopted another U.K.-led resolution recommending creation of an Open-Ended Working Group to get down to work. The General Assembly will vote next month on whether to approve it.

U.K. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace tweeted his reaction to today’s test, saying it showed a “complete disregard for the security, safety, and sustainability of space.”

China was globally condemned for its 2007 kinetic ASAT test that created 3,000 pieces of debris that the ISS and other spacecraft are still dodging. India conducted a kinetic ASAT test in 2019 that was designed to minimize the amount of debris, but some still made their way to the ISS orbit and India was sharply rebuked by then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

The Soviet Union and the United States had dedicated kinetic ASAT systems from the earliest days of the space program. The U.S.S.R. conducted a number of co-orbital ASAT tests against their own satellites, and the United States did once against a U.S. satellite in 1985, that created debris. After the end of the Cold War these systems fell into disuse. In 2008, however, DOD did destroy another U.S. satellite using a missile launched from an Aegis cruiser in Operation Burnt Frost. The satellite had failed and posed a threat if it reentered intact. The missile was aimed to create as little debris as possible.

All these tests are against each country’s own satellites. No country has launched a kinetic-kill satellite against another’s.

Kinetic-kill ASATs that destroy by physical collision are just one form of “counterspace” weapons and their debris-creating effect make them unpopular since the debris impacts everyone using Earth orbit, not just adversaries but whoever launched it. What prompted Russia to conduct this test and create debris that imperils its own satellites and its own cosmonauts on the ISS is unclear.

ISS crews get into their Soyuz and Crew Dragon spacecraft as a precaution when debris threatens the space station so they can undock and return to Earth if the ISS is compromised. They also close hatches to various space station modules. Russia’s Anton Shklaperov is currently the Commander of ISS and tweeted this morning that the crew is fine.

NASA ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano, Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders, and Associate Administrator Bob Cabana were already scheduled to meet with Russian space agency officials in Moscow to finalize crew-exchange negotiations. TASS reported this evening that Dmitry Rogozin, Director General of Roscosmos, Russia’s Space State Corporation, will meet with them and this debris issue will be one of the topics.

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