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US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Russia had tested anti-satellite weapons, after which debris formed in Earth’s orbit, posing a danger to the International Space Station. The Russian Ministry of Defense denies any threat.
Russia shot down one of its old satellites with an anti-satellite missile, Price said. As a result, according to him, 1.5 thousand fragments of space debris were formed, the movement of which can be tracked, and hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments, “now pose a threat to the interests of all peoples.”
“Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior threatens the long-term stability of space and clearly demonstrates that Russian statements against the militarization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical,” a State Department spokesman said.
On Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that a test had been conducted on November 15 that hit the inactive Russian Tselina-D spacecraft, which has been in orbit since the 1980s.
At the same time, the Russian department emphasized that the wreckage of the device did not pose a threat to orbital stations, and that China, India and the United States had already conducted such tests themselves.
“The United States knows with certainty that the resulting fragments do not or will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities in terms of test time and orbital parameters,” the ministry said.
And its head, Sergei Shoigu, said that the anti-satellite system hit the Tselina-D device “with jewelry.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in turn, called the accusations of creating risks for space activities hypocrisy.
“Now I can say only one thing. To say that the Russian Federation creates risks for the peaceful use of outer space is at least hypocritical. There are no facts,” Lavrov said (quoted by RIA Novosti).
That the launch resulted in the downing of the old Soviet satellite Kosmos-1408, a Tselina-class device designed for electronic intelligence, was previously reported by the American company Seradata, which tracks the movement of objects in space.
According to information from the American company, this satellite was launched in 1982 and has not worked for several decades. “After the hit, there was probably an explosion, which led to the appearance of a ‘debris cloud’, which led to the activation of safety protocols on the ISS,” says Seradata.
On Monday, the Russian state company Roscosmos reported, citing data from the US Mission Control Center, that the ISS was threatened by a collision with space debris. Because of this, the station crew had to take refuge in the Soyuz and Crew Dragon in case they needed to evacuate immediately.
Roskosmos later clarified that the threat of a collision had passed. “Currently, the crew of the International Space Station is performing routine work in accordance with the flight program,” the report said. “The orbit of the object, due to which the crew was forced to transfer to spacecraft in accordance with standard procedures, has moved away from the ISS orbit, the station is in the green zone”.
The ISS is in orbit at an altitude of approximately 420 kilometers from Earth.
Analysis: “a kind of madness”
Jonathan Amos, BBC science writer
It’s hard not to call anti-satellite missile testing a kind of madness.
It is impossible to control the entire cloud of debris resulting from a high-velocity impact.
There are thousands of these junks. Some of them rush to Earth and pose no danger, but many will go to higher orbits, where they will threaten orbits for many years, including those of the country that conducts such tests.
What were the Russian cosmonauts on the ISS thinking when they took refuge in the Soyuz capsule early Monday morning? The reason was the risk that the debris generated from these tests could fall into their own orbital home.
The space debris situation is rapidly deteriorating. 64 years of space activity above our heads means there are now about a million objects ranging in size from one to 10 centimeters flying around uncontrollably.
A strike by either could mean the end of the mission of an important meteorological or telecommunications satellite.
Therefore, humans must clear outer space and not clog it further.
Not the first time
According to Price, the tests “significantly increased the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS, just like other human spaceflight.”
The TASS agency reported, citing sources in the rocket and space industry, that on Tuesday the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, will hold talks with NASA representatives in Moscow, during which, among other things, “it is planned to discuss the meeting of space debris with the ISS which occurred on Monday.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby also told reporters about Russian anti-satellite tests, stressing that Moscow did not warn Washington about them in advance. “We are closely monitoring the means that Russia may be trying to develop. They could pose a threat not only to our national security interests, but also to the security of other space powers,” he said.
In this regard, Kirby said that the United States has long proposed the development of international standards for the safe use of space.
Already in the summer of 2020, the United States and Great Britain announced that Russia had tested anti-satellite weapons. In July 2020, after the Russian inspector satellite Kosmos-2543 entered orbit, a small object separated from it in the direction of another Russian satellite. The US Space Command calls it a “projectile,” but Russia claims it was some kind of “small spacecraft” testing another satellite in orbit.
This case in the United States is connected to another that occurred in 2017. Then, according to the Pentagon, the Russian device performed maneuvers near the American satellite. The United States believes that in both cases Russia tested anti-satellite weapons and that this shows Russia’s true intentions in not deploying weapons in space.
Not only Russia
Not only Moscow has such technology. The US first tested a weapon against satellites back in 1959. In 2019, India shot down its own satellite into low Earth orbit and declared itself a space power. China also has similar capabilities: in 2007, the country destroyed its own meteorological satellite, resulting in more than 2,000 trackable debris; this junk not only interfered with Chinese but also other space projects.
Meanwhile, Russia has for several years signed joint declarations not to be the first to place weapons in space with countries that do not have large space programs – neither civilian nor military. In addition to African, Latin American and Asian countries, such statements have been signed with, for example, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and others. These statements are made for a reason, but as part of Russia’s No First Deployment of Weapons in Space (NPOF) initiative, which has been in place since 2004.
In March this year, such an agreement was signed with Sierra Leone.