Officials from the United States claim that a Russian weapons test destroyed a Russian satellite out of orbit over the weekend. The debris created a storm and forced NASA astronauts to shelter at the International Space Station (ISS).
Space debris can travel at speeds up to 17500 miles per hour through the universe. That means any small piece of space debris is a risk to the satellites, the military, and our modern way of living.
Three U.S. officials who were not permitted to comment publicly about the subject said that top officials from the White House and NASA had been briefed.
U.S. Space Command, which oversees all space-based military operations, refused to directly comment on the alleged Russian weapons test, but did acknowledge a rare “debris-generating event” in a statement.
“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,” said Major AnnMarie Annicelli, an Air Force spokeswoman. “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.”
An old satellite, Cosmos-1408 (launched by the Soviet Union in 1981) was the object of ASAT’s anti-satellite weapons. It has since been lost to space for many years.
Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts were told to remove their space suits to take refuge on capsules that dock to the ISS to prevent a potential impact. This was according to the Russian news agency TASS. The Dragon capsule was visited by a German astronaut, three American astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut. Another American astronaut and two Russians also climbed on board the Soyuz MS-19 capsule.
TASS said debris flew by the orbiting station Monday morning before moving away.
Brian Weeden (ex-Air Force Officer, expert in security for the Secure World Foundation) says that tThe ISS will continue to pass through the debris field approximately every 90 minutes until tomorrow.
“All objects in orbit are moving at very fast speeds, usually several kilometers per second, and thus a collision between two of them can be catastrophic,” Weeden says. “A collision with an object several centimeters in size or higher could rupture the space station, potentially harming or endangering the astronauts on board. That’s why they took shelter in the emergency lifeboat, just in case they had to make an emergency evacuation.”
Weeden reports that Russia tested the PL-19 Nudol a surface-to space missile. The Plesetsk Cosmodrome is about 500 miles from Moscow. According to the Secure World Foundation, Russia has tried the missile at least 10 more times since 2014. However, it never struck an orbital target.
This incident is the latest in a series of contentious developments that space has become a venue for an unintentional escalated hostilities among world powers. The U.S., Russia and China, are all improving their arsenals of lasers, anti-satellite weapons and state-of-the-art spacecraft designed to render each others’ satellites deaf, mute and blind in space.
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Last year, the U.S. charged Russia with testing two anti-satellite weapon systems: one on-orbit and one in direct ascent. China tried its anti-satellite weapon technology in 2007 by attacking one of its defunct weather satellites using a ground-based missile. This provoked international anger as it blew up the target, causing more than 3000 pieces of debris. The exercise, which was condemned worldwide, may pose a threat to other satellites over the years.
Since then, it has been proven true. Last Wednesday saw the ISS have to rev up its thrusters to increase its altitude approximately 1 mile. This was to keep a lingering part of that wreck from 2007. The debris was not on a direct collision course with the station, but instead was on track to enter what NASA calls the “pizza box,” a 2.5 miles deep, 30 miles wide safety zone that the ISS maintains.
When the pizza box is under threat, the station will resort to evasive moves. This event marked the 29th time the station has been forced to bob and weave to stay out of harm’s way since 1999, but with the growing debris problem in low-Earth orbit, it is not remotely likely to be the last.
—With reporting by Jeffrey Kluger