Russia shot down one of its Soviet-era satellites in a weapon test on Monday, sending over 1,500 tracked wreckage to space. It made the astronauts International Space Station in the hideout about two hours in two spaceships which could return them to Earth in the event of an imminent collision. While the ISS appears to remain open for now, experts believe the situation is still dangerous. Satellite operators may have to navigate this new cloud of space debris for several years, perhaps decades.
In fact, the latest missile test in Russia may have increased the total amount of space debris, including the discarded parts of rockets and satellites in Earth orbit, by as much as 10 percent… These debris rotate at incredible speeds and run the risk of hitting active satellites that run important technologies such as GPS navigation and weather forecasting. Such space debris is in fact so dangerous that national security officials fear it could be used as a weapon in a future space war. In fact, the State Department has already said Monday’s rocket test is proof that Russia is more than willing to create debris that endangers the safety of all countries operating in low Earth orbit and even risks disrupting peace in space.
These risks have only heightened fears that we are far from solving the space debris problem, especially when private companies and foreign governments launch thousands of new satellites into orbit, which inevitably creates more space debris.
However, Monday’s events were politically more dangerous than conventional space debris incidents. The Russian government began the so-called anti-satellite test (ASAT), which, as the name suggests, is designed to destroy satellites in orbit. Launched from the site several hundred miles north of Moscow, the rocket hit Non-working Russian spy satellite Cosmos-1408, which has been orbiting the Earth since 1982. The satellite is now split into thousands of pieces that are currently orbiting the Earth at about 17,000 miles per hour, passing the International Space Station about every 90 minutes. Although astronauts no longer need to take cover, the threat to the ISS or other satellites is still there.
“I am outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action”, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “With its long and legendary history of manned space travel, it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts.” Nelson added that Russia’s actions were “reckless and dangerous” and also endangered those aboard China’s Tiangong space station.
Although Russia has admitted to destroying the satellite in recent tests, its Defense Department insisted on the event did not endanger the ISS.
Russia is one of four countriesincluding India, USA and China to detonate their own satellite using an anti-satellite missile. This trend is alarming because governments with ASAT systems could use this technology to attack satellites in other countries, turning space into a battlefield. But even if countries are only targeting their space assets, Russian missile tests show how governments can also use anti-satellite missiles to create debris that endangers every country, company, or person operating in orbit. Once again, once this debris is created, it can remain a threat for years. Just last week, the ISS had to adjust its height about a mile to avoid collision with space debris from a satellite shot down by China in 2007.
The problem of space debris is also growing. There are over 100 million pieces of space debris in existence right now. more than a millimeter in Earth’s orbit, according to NASA. And as of May, the Ministry of Defense tracked more than 27,000 large pieces of orbital debris, but even smaller debris can pose a serious threat to other satellites and space stations because of the incredibly high speed at which they move.
“I don’t think the danger of space debris can be overestimated right now,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the US Air Force’s School of Aerospace Research, told Recode. “As you create more debris, the likelihood that this debris will hit other items and create more debris just increases.”
The problem of space debris is especially complicated by the fact that no one has taken responsibility for it. According to Outer space treaty, the backbone of international space law, countries remain the owners of whatever objects they send into space, so Russia still technically owns all of the satellite fragments created during its missile tests on Monday. There is no consensus about what fines are for the creation of space debris should beand tracking and attributing various debris to the space operations of different countries is still difficult.
Government agencies and private space companies technology development for removing space debris, such as networks, could catch debris in orbit and devices this will push the satellites into the atmosphere to disintegrate. But there are fears that governments may use the same tools to destroy another country’s satellites. At the same time, the cost of creating and removing space debris is rarely considered when deciding whether to launch a spacecraft or satellite into space.
“In many ways this is a problem of the same type, an environmental problem that we have dealt with on Earth in many, many forms,” said Achil Rao. economist in Middlebury Who studied space debris, told Recode. “We fought the collapse of fisheries, we fought air pollution, [and] we have been fighting ozone depletion. ”
Right now, the best way to mitigate many of the risks associated with orbital debris is to not create space debris at all. This can happen by improving international cooperation or creating new economic incentives for private companies, but the sooner this happens, the better. While we can usually navigate through pre-existing space debris, it will get harder and harder as more debris accumulates. And if we don’t find a solution in time, we may find ourselves in a situation where low Earth orbit is so clogged with space debris that it becomes unmanageable.