Russia puts ISS at risk with debris generated by anti-satellite missile

The US State Department expressed outrage after a Russian anti-satellite missile test generated debris which put the ISS at risk.

The International Space Station (ISS) photographed by Expedition 56 crew members from a Soyuz spacecraft after undocking, October 4, 2018. (photo credit: NASA/Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS)
The International Space Station (ISS) photographed by Expedition 56 crew members from a Soyuz spacecraft after undocking, October 4, 2018.
(photo credit: NASA/Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS)

The US State Department announced that Russia had "recklessly conducted" an anti-satellite missile test against a Russian satellite, generating thousands of pieces of debris which put the International Space Station and other equipment in orbit at risk, during a press briefing on Monday.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price stated that the missile test generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris, as well as hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that "now threaten the interests of all nations."

"In addition, this test will significantly increase the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station as well as to other human spaceflight activities," said Price. "Russia's dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long term sustainability of our outer space and clearly demonstrates that Russia's claims of opposing the weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical. The United States will work with our allies and partners to respond to Russia's irresponsible act."

Price stated that the US had repeatedly warned Russia about its concerns about the dangers of conducting such a test. Price added that he could not yet speak about what action the US or its partners had taken concerning this specific incident.

The spokesperson stressed that "the international community is not willing to tolerate this kind of irresponsible behavior."

View of Earth  from the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting Earth in an image taken by NASA astronaut Christopher J. Cassidy August 19, 2020 (credit: NASA/CHRISTOPHER J. CASSIDY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)View of Earth from the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting Earth in an image taken by NASA astronaut Christopher J. Cassidy August 19, 2020 (credit: NASA/CHRISTOPHER J. CASSIDY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Additionally on Monday, US Space Command announced that it was "aware of a debris-generating event in outer space," but did not specify what caused the debris.

"We are actively working to characterize the debris field and will continue to ensure all space-faring nations have the information necessary to maneuver satellites if impacted," added Space Command.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tweeted that the satellite targeted by Russia was likely the Cosmos-1408, a Soviet Electronic and Signals Intelligence satellite launched in 1982 which stopped working around 1984.

The incident caused crew on the ISS to temporarily take shelter. Mission control instructed astronauts on the ISS to keep many of the hatches between space station modules closed through Tuesday as they work to track the debris field, according to Spaceflight Now news. The ISS is reportedly transiting through the debris field as often as once an hour.

Roscosmos, the Russian state corporation for space activity, told TASS on Monday that the space debris in question had since moved away from the ISS's orbit and that the station was now in the green zone.

The reported Russian weapons test comes amid tensions between Russia and Ukraine, along with other European nations, as Russia amasses forces along its border with Ukraine, raising concerns that it could try and invade Ukraine. Additionally, tensions are high as Belarus pushes migrants towards its borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, as the three countries work to prevent the migrants from illegally entering their territory.

Price stated that the missile test and military activity along the Ukrainian border "certainly give us pause," but added that the US was keeping lines of diplomacy open and aiming for a more open and stable relationship with Russia. The spokesperson stressed that "it obviously takes two" to achieve that kind of relationship.

"We have been very clear in speaking out when the Russian Federation has undertaken activities like the one today that is irresponsible, reckless and/or dangerous, but we have continued to engage robustly with our partners, with our allies, including those in the region," said Price, pointing to "extensive interactions" with partners in Europe, including Ukraine, concerning Russian military activity along Ukraine's border.

"We have made very clear through all of this that escalatory or aggressive actions by Russia would be of great concern to the United States, they are a great concern to our allies and partners," added Price.

UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace condemned the missile test, saying "this destructive anti-satellite missile test by Russia shows a complete disregard for the security, safety and sustainability of space. The debris resulting from this test will remain in orbit putting satellites and human spaceflight at risk for years to come."