Updated Nov. 15, 2021 at 5:10 p.m. ET with statement from Gen. James Dickinson, SPACECOM head.
WASHINGTON: A Russian test of a direct ascent anti-satellite weapon has created a field of around 1,500 pieces of space debris, putting global systems and even the International Space Station at risk, the US government confirmed Monday afternoon.
For hours Monday, the Pentagon was careful not to confirm anything as rumors swirled — and expert sleuths poured over data — about Russia having knowingly created a new debris field by destroying on of its satellites. One military source told Breaking Defense it “looks like” the debris was caused by a ground-launched missile; that same source claimed around 1,500 pieces of debris have now been thrown wildly into orbit.
That debris figure, as well as Russia’s role in the situation, was officially confirmed by State Department spokesman Ned Price, who said “Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long term sustainability of our space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weapons and weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical.”
Added Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, “Obviously we’re concerned about any nation that would weaponize space, that makes space less conducive to peaceful commercial enterprises and exploration. We want to see the space domain subject to international norms and rules so it can be explored by all spacefaring nations.”
Kirby added that the US was not given any advance notice of the Russian test.
Gen. James Dickinson, Space Command head, issued a statement this evening condemning the test, stressing that the debris field will “likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris” beyond the 1,500 pieces now being tracked by the military.
“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” he said. “The debris created by Russia’s DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers. Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”
While waiting for confirmation from the US, space scientists from around the world took to Twitter to analyze the situation, with consensus quickly forming that the most likely cause of the satellite breakup was a strike in the wee hours this morning or late yesterday by a A-235 / PL-19 Nudol ASAT system, launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrone some 800 kilometers north of Moscow. Nudol, has been tested at least 10 times before, according to Secure World Foundation’s 2021 Global Counterspace Report.
However, Pavel Podvig, a senior research fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, Switzerland, told Breaking Defense that Russia up to now has never actually conducted a ground-based “kinetic kill” interception. This fact, he suggested, might have been what motivated Moscow to do the test — simply to prove that it the Nudol could do the job it is designed for.
Commercial space-tracking startup LeoLabs confirmed in a Tweet that its radar has picked up a large debris cloud where the defunct signals intelligent satellite Russian Cosmos-1408, launched in 1982 and orbiting at about 480 kilometers in altitude, was previously located.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tweeted that a satellite the size of the Cosmos-1408, with a mass of some 1,750 kilograms, would likely result in “thousands” of pieces of “cataloged” debris — meaning debris bigger than the size of a softball that can be traced specifically to the bird’s break up and tracked by the 18th Space Control Squadron.
However, as McDowell noted, it usually takes weeks for SPACECOM to gather up all the tracking data and release it via its public catalog of space objects online at Space-Track.org.
The threat of a kinetic strike against satellite systems is hardly an unknown one. In the recent Breaking Defense Space Survey, respondents listed both “anti-satellite technology” and offensive actions by China or Russia as a potential top concern, and listed Russia as the second-most threatening nation to American interests in space.
As even tiny pieces of space debris, the size of a paint fleck, can damage a satellite, the news of yet another nation deliberately taking actions that result in thousand of pieces of dangerous junk has piqued concern among space watchers.
Since the debris field appeared, crew aboard the International Space Station have several times been told to take shelter in case the station takes damage as it passes through the debris — raising the specter of a political incident for Russia should any of the ISS crew, or those aboard China’s own Tiangong space station, be injured.
“If nothing else, this proves the need to have established agreement as to what kinds of behavior the international community has come together and deemed to be unacceptable, since right now there is nothing like that to point to demonstrate that,” summed up Victoria Samson, Secure World’s Washington office director.