Science

Russian anti-satellite test adds to ever-growing space debris problem

Earth is covered with orbiting space debris. Credit: NASA (via Flickr)

By Aditi Girish Kallanagoudar | Contributor

Russia’s recent test of an anti-satellite missile system which caused the destruction of one of their own satellites has sparked international outrage, as the debris poses a serious threat to other satellites in a low-earth orbit and even the International Space Station.

On Monday, Russia carried out the anti-satellite test from Plesetsk Cosmodrome, which is about 800km north of Moscow. The missile destroyed an old Soviet spy satellite, Kosmos 1408, which was once part of Russia’s Tselina radio signals surveillance programme.

According to US State Department spokesperson Ned Price, the destruction of Kosmos 1408 generated about 1,500 pieces of larger orbiting objects whose tracking information is available to civilian sources, but it also created hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments which are too small to detect from the ground.

The debris field from the Russian anti-satellite test is at an altitude of between 440km and 520km above the Earth, threatening the ISS and China’s Tiangong space station among other spacecraft.

This Russian anti-satellite is not the first of its kind, with China’s missile test against one of its own weather satellites in 2007 resulting in 3,000 pieces of debris as big or bigger than a golf ball and over 100,000 smaller pieces. The debris from this test contributes to one third of all orbiting fragments that pose a threat to the ISS.

These missile tests only worsen the increasing issue of space debris, joining the rockets that continue to orbit the earth decades after being launched, and flecks of paint shed off of once brand new space vehicles. It marks as a reminder of humanity’s 64 years of space exploration.

Currently, there is close to 10,000 tonnes of hardware in orbit, and though most of it is still active, far too much of it useless and dysfunctional. The 30,000 pieces of large, easily visible debris are tracked on a daily basis, but the nearly 300 million objects of a scale below a centimeter move around practically untracked. 

While it may seem like these objects are too small to cause any real damage, these objects are travelling at several kilometres per second which is enough velocity to enable them to be classed as damaging projectiles if any were to strike any operational space mission.

When the ISS passed close to the debris cloud of the Russian anti-satellite test on Monday, crew members were asked to shelter in the Soyuz and Crew Dragon spacecraft attached to the orbiting outpost so that they would be able to detach and return to the Earth in case of any danger. 

The space shuttle and a few other vehicles were hit by smaller pieces of debris, leaving the ISS and everyone inside unharmed, but it’s likely that a collision with any large objects at orbital speeds would be catastrophic to the ISS.

The Russian military, which is facing criticism from both the US and the UK, has said that it was carrying out planned activities to strengthen its defence capabilities, and completely denies that the test was dangerous.

“The United States 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 has said.

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