While we were all focused on the climate change summit in the UK, another environmental problem was unfolding in space. Russia sent a missile to destroy a Soviet satellite as part of a test. In the process, it created a lot of space junk and debris that can cause problems for the International Space Station (ISS) or other satellites.
It’s not the first time this happens and it won’t likely be the last one.
Much of the scientific community and the United States government condemned the anti-satellite test, describing it as reckless and dangerous. Meanwhile, Russia said the thousands of pieces of debris don’t represent a threat to space activity, arguing the debris cloud moved away from the ISS orbit, which is about 400 kilometers above Earth.
The test created about 1,500 pieces of debris, according to the US Space Command. Still, it’s not the first time a country does this sort of thing and blasts its own satellite. Back in 2007, China also tested its missile system against weather satellites in orbit – creating more than 3,000 pieces of debris the size of a golf ball and more than 100,000 much smaller pieces.
As a legacy of over 60 years of space activity, there’s now a jungle of junk floating around space – from flecks of paint from space vehicles to old rocket bodies and satellites. The European Space Agency estimates there are about 10,000 tons of debris objects orbiting our planet, plenty of which are defunct.
According to a report published by NASA earlier this year, about 26,000 of the pieces of debris are the size of a softball or even larger, more than 500,000 are marble-sized and over 100 million are the size of a grain of salt. And as these fragments crash into each other as they float in space they can also create more pieces of smaller size, posing even more of a threat for other satellites.
All this junk travels at several kilometers per second, which is enough to become damaging projectiles to an operational space mission. In fact, this was the case in 2009 when an active communications satellite run by a US company and a defunct Soviet-era communications satellite clashed in orbit. Imagine the risk if a human mission would be involved.
Tension at the ISS
The cloud of debris passed close to the International Space Station, raising the alarm among crew members – who were told to put their spacesuits and shelter in the Crew Dragon and the Soyuz spacecrafts. In case the ISS was damaged by fragments from the Russian satellite, they could detach and come back to Earth without any major risks.
Nevertheless, Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, posted a message on Twitter downplaying the danger to the ISS from the debris. “The orbit of the object, which forced the crew today to move into spacecraft according to standard procedures, has moved away from the ISS orbit. The station is in the green zone,” Roscosmos wrote.
The astronauts at the ISS, four Americans, one German, and two Russians, spent two hours in the spacecrafts, emerging from time to time to close and reopen hatches to the ISS’ individual labs on every orbit. In a statement, the Russian military said the test wasn’t dangerous and it was part of their efforts to fortify its defense capabilities.
The explanation didn’t seem sufficient for the other governments. France described the missile test as “destabilising, irresponsible and likely to have consequences for a very long time in the space environment and for all actors in space,” while the German government said to be “very concerned” and asked for new rules on space behaviour. At the moment, there are no clear regulations on managing satellites and clearing out space junk.