Russia destroyed one of its own satellites with a ground-based missile Nov. 15, in a test of its PL-19 Nudol DA-ASAT (direct-ascent anti-satellite) system. The blast created thousands of pieces of debris that quickly spread out into Earth orbit. The US says it has identified more than 1,500 trackable pieces of debris from the strike, and many thousands of smaller ones that cannot be traced. That same day, the Russian space agency, RosCosmos, reported that the astronauts on board the International Space Station had to shelter in place due to a cloud of debris passing by the station every 90 minutes, the time it takes for the ISS to orbit the Earth. It was unclear if the debris threatening the ISS came from Russia’s ASAT test.
But the US State Department charged that the new debris field does pose a danger to the space station. “This test will significantly increase the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station, as well as to other human spaceflight activities,” State Department representative Ned Price told reporters. “Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of our space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical.”
US Space Command chief Gen. James Dickinson added: “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.”
Russia carried out the ASAT test from Plesetsk Cosmodrome, about 800 kilometers north of Moscow. The missile destroyed an old Soviet spy satellite, called Kosmos 1408, that was once part of Russia’s Tselina radio signals surveillance program. Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Vladimir Dvorkin, former head of the 4th Central Research Institute (TsNII) of the Russian Defense Ministry, stated: “There is no direct violation of any international agreements. And we should not warn anyone when we test our systems—anti-missile or anti-satellite. We are not obliged to warn anyone about this, there is nothing like that.”
But Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation, a US-based group focused on space policy issues, commented on social media that Russia is bound by Article 9 of the Outer Space Treaty, which states that parties undertaking activities in space shall do so “with due regard” to the interests of other parties of the treaty, and take due measures to avoid “harmful contamination.” (The Verge, SpaceNews, The Diplomat, BBC News)
Hundreds of millions of pieces of “space junk” orbit the Earth daily, from chips of old rocket paint, to shards of solar panels, and entire dead satellites. This cloud of high-tech detritus spins around the planet at about 17,500 miles per hour. At these speeds, even pieces as small as a pebble can rip through a passing spacecraft. NASA and the US Defense Department are using ground-based telescopes and laser radars (ladars) to track more than 17,000 “orbital debris objects” to prevent collisions with operating missions. (MIT News)
Image: MIT News