On Monday, Russia tested an anti-satellite missile, destroying one of its satellites in orbit. The test created a huge cloud of debris that continues to orbit the Earth, and some of the material loomed dangerously close to the International Space Station, forcing astronauts to hide for several hours in a pair of spaceships that could return them to Earth.
Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken, in a statement on Monday, called the missile strike “reckless.”
“So far, the test has generated over 1,500 tracked orbital debris and is likely to generate hundreds of thousands of smaller orbital debris,” he added. US Space Command said in a statement that “the debris will remain in orbit for many years and possibly decades, posing a significant risk to the crew of the International Space Station and other human activities in space travel.”
“It’s a shame the Russians did it,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in an interview. He said NASA officials spoke with the Russian space agency Roscosmos about anti-satellite tests. Mr. Nelson said that the NASA officer in charge of the space station, Joel Montalbano, as well as the third senior NASA official, Bob Cabana, are in Moscow and plan to discuss the tests with their Russian counterparts tomorrow.
Mr Nelson also noted that the incident threatens the three astronauts currently on board the Chinese Tiangong space station.
The Russian military did not respond to requests for comment on the weapon testing. But this happened at a time when military tensions between Russia and the United States increased. The State Department said last Wednesday that Russia was building up troops on the border with Ukraine. Blinken said aggressive actions at the border “would be of great concern to the United States.”
NASA and Roscosmos, which jointly operate the space station and protect the astronauts inside, are largely shielded from military tensions between Washington and Moscow. But the two geopolitical realms clashed after Monday’s weapons test.
Mr Nelson said he “had reason to believe” that Roscosmos officials were unaware that the Russian Defense Ministry was planning to launch an anti-satellite missile.
“And if any of those knew about this, they should have raised Cain because of the threats to astronauts and cosmonauts on the space station,” he said.
On Monday, Russian authorities filed an airspace notice warning that planes should avoid the Plesetsk cosmodrome, about 650 miles north of Moscow. This is the same location where an earlier Russian anti-satellite missile was launched in December 2020, although this test did not hit any targets. Monday’s notifications indicated the launch was due early Monday morning, around the same time the old Russian observation satellite was preparing to fly over the area.
The rocket hit the Cosmos 1408 satellite, tearing it apart.
Around the same time, NASA astronauts on the space station were suddenly awakened by a mission control officer in Houston, who ordered the astronauts to take cover in their spacecraft.
“Hi Mark, good morning, sorry for the early call,” a NASA spokesman in Houston said to Mark Vanda Hay, one of four NASA astronauts currently on the space station. “We were recently briefed on a satellite breakdown and you need to get you guys to start rethinking your asylum procedure.”
During Monday’s event, astronauts closed various hatches between compartments at the station and boarded a spacecraft docked at an orbital station that could return them to Earth in the event of an accident. Currently, there are two spacecraft, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule and the Russian Soyuz capsule, capable of entering the Earth’s atmosphere and delivering crews to the surface.
Raja Chari, commander of the NASA mission that flew four astronauts to the space station last week, boarded the Crew Dragon spacecraft and turned it on in case it needed to undock.
The astronauts remained in the capsules for about two hours, from about 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. Soon after the test reports emerged, Roscosmos reported that the space station was “in the green zone” and safe from what it described as “an object.” An agency spokesman declined to go into details and contacted the Russian Defense Ministry.
Anti-satellite tests generate debris clouds that can remain in space for decades. The Russian strike on Monday created the largest new space debris field since 2007, when China launched a rocket at one of its old weather satellites. This weapon test produced a swarm of approximately 2,300 debris.
In 2008, the United States conducted its own weapon test, which created an orbital cloud of approximately 400 pieces. An Indian weapon test in 2019 left about the same amount of wreckage as an American test in 2008.
Then NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the Indian test had put the space station at risk. And just last week, NASA and Russian officials were forced to move the position of the International Space Station into orbit to avoid the debris of the 2007 Chinese test.
But weapon testing isn’t the only source of debris in space. The aging of satellites that are not properly removed from orbit exacerbates the world’s space debris problems. Experts are also concerned about the risks posed by private companies, many in the United States, that plan to launch thousands of satellites that will carry high-speed Internet service to Earth.
US military officials have increased their presence in space in recent years as competition in low-Earth orbit construction between Washington, Russia and China, including through the creation of the US Space Force as a separate arm of the military, has increased. The Pentagon has long criticized Russia for its space activities, which include moving satellites too close to US spy satellites and launching satellites that disable smaller, maneuverable spacecraft without warning.
“Russian tests of right ascension anti-satellite weapons clearly demonstrate that Russia continues to develop anti-space weapons systems that undermine strategic stability and pose a threat to all countries,” US Space Command Commander James Dickinson said in a statement.
Some of the astronauts aboard the space station seemed to take the day’s events calmly. Mr Wande Hey, in orbit since April, thanked NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston “for a crazy but well-coordinated day” after the crews left their lifeboats.
“It was definitely a great way to get close to the team,” he said.
Michael Crowley prepared reports from Washington, and Andrew Kramer, Alina Lobzina and Oleg Matsnev prepared reports from Moscow.