Russia has shocked and enraged the international community by conducting an anti-satellite test that puts the International Space Station — and everyone living on it — in jeopardy. The action has provoked strong rebukes from many officials, not the least of whom is NASA Administrator Bill Nelson who expressed shock that Russia would put its own cosmonauts at risk.
In a statement today, the US Space Command revealed that Russia conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile test. The missile targeted a Russian satellite, causing it to explode in low-Earth orbit (LEO) where it produced a large “debris field.” At the time of the US Space Command’s statement, officials said there were more than 1,500 trackable pieces of debris with “hundreds of thousands” of smaller pieces anticipated.
This debris field presents a new space hazard, with US Space Command estimating the satellite pieces will stick around in orbit for up to multiple decades. The immediate concern involves the threat this missile test presents to human life, with the International Space Station crew facing “significant risk.”
In addition to the threat posed to the ISS and other future crewed missions, the debris field also jeopardizes satellites belonging to multiple countries. US Space Command commander U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson issued a scathing statement about the missile test, saying:
Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations. 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.
It didn’t take long for NASA to make a statement about the matter; in addition to calling Russia’s test “irresponsible,” the agency also revealed how the International Space Station and its crew are handling the issue. In a statement of his own, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said:
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.
All nations have a responsibility to prevent the purposeful creation of space debris from ASATs and to foster a safe, sustainable space environment. NASA will continue monitoring the debris in the coming days and beyond to ensure the safety of our crew in orbit.
Earlier today, the ISS Flight Control Team received an unexpected alert that a satellite had exploded and produced a dangerous debris field. The debris posed a direct threat to the ISS, forcing the astronauts and cosmonauts on board to take emergency measures. The safety efforts included closing all of the module hatches with the exception of the ones between the US and Russian parts of the station.
As well, the crew — which was awakened by the emergency notification — had to take shelter for the first and third passes through and then near the debris field based on a risk assessment. The astronauts and cosmonauts were forced to spend two hours in their spacecraft, according to NASA, which says the ISS continues to pass through or near the debris field every 1.5 hours.
The missile test, which occurred in the early morning hours in the Eastern time zone, is an ongoing matter. The US Space Command says it will continue monitoring the debris field and provide all of the details with other nations that conduct space activities — including Russia.
NASA, meanwhile, says updates on the International Space Station’s status amid this safety risk will be published on its dedicated ISS website. Gen. Dickinson called the test a “deliberate disregard” for sustainable long-term space missions that jeopardize other countries’ ability to utilize space in a safe, secure, and stable way.
Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, likewise accused Russia of “disingenuous and hypocritical” claims about opposing space weapons. Specific responses to the missile test haven’t yet been revealed, but Price said the US will talk with its allies on how to proceed.