International

Russian anti-satellite missile put astronauts at risk, US warns


Russia tested an anti-satellite missile on Monday in a “destructive” move that generated debris that put astronauts on the International Space Station at risk, the US state department said.

In a statement released on Monday afternoon, Antony Blinken, secretary of state, said that Russia had earlier in the day “recklessly conducted a destructive test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites”.

Blinken said the test had generated more than 1,500 pieces of “trackable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris”, threatening people working at the International Space Station and “other human space flight activities”.

The actions “clearly demonstrate that Russia, despite its claims of opposing the weaponisation of outer space, is willing to jeopardise the long-term sustainability of outer space and imperil the exploration and use of outer space by all nations through its reckless and irresponsible behaviour”, Blinken said. He added that the US would work with its allies and partners to respond.

The test comes amid rising tensions between the US and Russia after Washington last week publicly warned Moscow against invading Ukraine, where officials have become alarmed by the build-up of up to 114,000 Russian troops on its borders.

This is not the first time states have tested missiles on satellites. During the cold war, the US and Russia designed and tested anti-satellite weapons. Such missiles could theoretically shoot down enemy satellites that control intelligence and communications and threaten to turn space into a war zone.

More recently, China and India have also tested aspects of anti-satellite systems. In 2007 China drew international condemnation when it blew up one of its own failed satellites, creating more than 35,000 pieces of debris. A recent Rand Corporation report described the event as “the largest debris-generating incident to date”.

“This event is a clear risk to the International Space Station but, depending on the energy and angle of the impact, also a risk to other satellite constellations in this portion of low Earth orbit, including elements of the SpaceX Starlink constellation,” said Bruce McClintock of the Rand Space Enterprise Initiative.

“While the short-term actions to protect the astronauts on the shuttle are most urgent, this event is a stark reminder of the importance of establishing a ban of debris-generating ASAT testing. Debris generation affects everyone.”

Army general James Dickinson, head of the US Space Command, added: “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.”

Governments are increasingly concerned about the problem of space debris, since fragments as small as a fingernail are capable of inflicting great damage to orbiting spacecraft. Currently there are almost 30,000 orbiting objects that are regularly tracked, but it is estimated that there are substantially more than 1m that are too small to be followed.

Many in the space industry are publicly calling for international collaboration on new rules to govern behaviour in space as a record number of satellites are launched into low Earth orbit. Falling launch costs and cheaper satellites have made it possible for private companies to develop commercial space-based businesses such as satellite broadband or Earth observation.

But with SpaceX alone hoping to launch more than 40,000 satellites, closely followed by Amazon and dozens of others, many in the industry are increasingly concerned about the risks of collisions creating more debris that could threaten the sustainability of space.

The “Kessler syndrome” model outlines a catastrophe scenario where debris from one collision sets off a chain reaction of collisions, ultimately closing off safe access to space.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics who tracks activity in space, said on Twitter: “I condemned the 2007 Chinese test, the 2008 US test, the 2019 Indian test, and I equally condemn this one. Debris-generating anti-satellite tests are a bad idea and should never be carried out.”

Mike Rogers, the most senior Republican congressman on the US House of Representatives armed services committee, called the reports of Russia’s test “concerning” and said such events were “exactly why we stood up Space Command and created the Space Force”.

“Space has already become a warfighting domain,” he said. “The Biden administration must back rapid defence modernisation with a focus on space. I am afraid that this test, like the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test, will impact space for many years to come.”



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