In an unexpected escalation of international tension, Russia fired a missile into one of its own satellites on Monday, creating a massive debris field of more than 1,500 pieces of “trackable orbital debris” that immediately threatened the lives of astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station (ISS) , and could even impact life on Earth.
According to U.S. Space Command, Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile which struck a Russian satellite known as COSMOS 1408. Some in the military community are concerned this provocation by Russia may be a signal they’re preparing to invade Europe, with significant troop build-up near the Ukraine border.
“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” said U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, U.S. Space Command commander. “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.”
While the White House hasn’t commented on the incident, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the missile test as “reckless and irresponsible.” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that “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.”
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement on Monday, “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.
According to NASA, the international crew was awakened and directed to close the hatches to radial modules on the station, including Columbus, Kibo, the Permanent Multipurpose Module, Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, and Quest Joint Airlock. Hatches between the U.S. and Russian segments remain open. An additional precautionary measure of sheltering the crew was executed for two passes through or near the vicinity of the debris cloud. The space station is passing through or near the cloud every 90 minutes, but the need to shelter for only the second and third passes of the event was based on a risk assessment made by the debris office and ballistics specialists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Beyond impacting low-Earth orbiting space stations operated by the international community, debris also has the potential to impact GPS, communications, and Earth-observing satellites such as weather satellites which could impact lives on Earth. By taking out their own COSMOS 1408 satellite, Russia has showcased their capability to take out any satellite it sees as a threat to its own interests.
While the debris could harm people in space, space stations, and essential satellites used in space by those on Earth, it is unlikely the debris would pose a direct threat to people on Earth. It appears while it has the potential to be destructive in space, it is likely too small to survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and strike people on Earth.
Russia downplayed the risks and threats today.
“The U.S. knows for certain that the resulting fragments, in terms of test time and orbital parameters, did not and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities,” Russia’s defense ministry said.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said that Washington was guilty of “hypocrisy” with its claim Russia had posed a risk to peaceful activities in outer space. U.S. and other countries have tested anti-satellite military technology in the past.
While Russia has downplayed the incident, other world leaders are condemning the incident.
Germany’s government said today it was “very concerned” by the missile strike, calling for urgent measures to “strengthen security and confidence.” The Germany foreign ministry said in a statement, “We call on all states to engage constructively in this process and in the development of principles for responsible behaviour in space.”
“This destructive anti-satellite missile test by Russia shows a complete disregard for the security, safety and sustainability of space,” United Kingdom’s Defence Minister Ben Wallace said in a post he Tweeted.
Without naming Russia, French Defense Minister Florence Parly today lashed out at “space vandals” who were producing dangerous amounts of debris. “The space vandals have an overwhelming responsibility for generating debris that pollutes and puts our astronauts and satellites in danger,” she wrote.
While the world is alarmed at this space-based missile incident, there is growing concern of a potential invasion of eastern Europe by Russia. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the U.S. military is monitoring the Ukraine region closely amid reports of a new build-up of Russian troops on the country’s border.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia on Monday that the western military alliance was standing by Ukraine amid a large and unusual concentration of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders. Russia has assembled tens of thousands of troops at the border, prompting international concern there. The Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said that U.S. intelligence assessments suggest a “high probability” that Russia may be planning further military aggression against the country. The U.S. warning has raised the level of alert to its highest level since 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Kyiv.
Ukraine says Russia is massing as many as 114,000 troops to the north, east, and south of the Donbass, a mostly Russian-speaking region where Russian-backed separatists have fought government forces since a pro-western revolution in Kyiv in 2014.
It isn’t clear if the missile incident in space is a precursor to more aggression by Russia in eastern Europe or if the two situations are related.
Tensions escalated last Wednesday when Blinken met his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in Washington, DC. During a joint press conference, the US declared its “grave concern” over Russia’s military presence and said its commitment to Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity was “ironclad”.
The foreign ministers of Germany and France also warned Russia against taking any military action in the Ukraine, with the space-based missile test in the background. “Against the backdrop of renewed concerns about Russian movements of troops and hardware near Ukraine, we call on Russia to adopt a posture of restraint and provide transparent information about its military activities. Any new attempt to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity would have serious consequences,” the ministers said.