A Russian weapons test has created more than 1,500 pieces of space junk that now threaten the seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station, according to US officials who called the attack reckless and irresponsible.
The State Department confirmed Monday that the debris came from an old Russian satellite destroyed by the missile.
“Needless to say, I’m outraged. This is inconceivable, “NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press.” It is incredible that the Russian government is doing this test and threatening not only international astronauts, but their own cosmonauts who are aboard the station. ” like the three people on the Chinese space station.
Nelson said astronauts now face four times the risk of normal. And this is based on debris large enough to track, with hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces going undetected – “any of which can cause massive damage if it hits in the right place.”
In condemning Russia, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that even the satellites are now in danger.
The test clearly demonstrates that Russia “despite its claims to oppose the armament of outer space, is willing to … endanger the exploration and use of outer space by all nations through its behavior. reckless and irresponsible, “Blinken said in a statement.
There were no immediate comments from Russia on the missile strike late Monday.
Once the threat became clear early Monday morning, the four Americans, one German and two Russians on board were ordered to immediately seek refuge in their docked pods. They spent two hours in the two pods, eventually emerging only to have to close and reopen the hatches of the station’s individual labs on each orbit, or 1.5 hours, as they passed near or through the debris.
At the end of the day, according to Nelson, only the hatches of the central core of the station remained open while the crew slept.
Even a smudge of paint can cause severe damage when it orbits at 17,500 mph (28,000 km / h). Something big on impact could be catastrophic.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States has repeatedly raised concerns with Russia about carrying out a satellite test.
“We will continue to make it clear that we will not tolerate this type of activity,” he told reporters.
NASA Mission Control said the heightened threat could continue to disrupt astronaut scientific research and other work. Four of the seven crew members arrived at orbiting on Thursday night.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who is in the middle of a one-year mission, called it “a crazy but well-coordinated day” as he wished Mission Control good night.
“It was definitely a great way to bond as a crew, starting with our first day of work in space,” he said.
A similar weapons test conducted by China in 2007 also resulted in countless debris. One of those pieces threatened to come dangerously close to the space station last week. Although it was later dismissed as a risk, NASA still moved the station.
Anti-satellite missile tests by the United States in 2008 and India in 2019 were conducted at much lower altitudes, well below the space station at about 260 miles (420 kilometers).
The late Russian satellite Cosmos 1408 was in orbit about 40 miles (65 kilometers) higher.
As of Monday, the US Space Command was already monitoring some 20,000 pieces of space junk, including old and broken satellites from around the world.
Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said it will take days if not weeks and months to catalog the latest wrecks and confirm their orbits. The fragments will begin to spread over time, due to atmospheric resistance and other forces, he said in an email.
The space station is particularly at risk because the test took place close to its orbit, McDowell said. But all objects in low Earth orbit – including the Chinese space station and even the Hubble Space Telescope – will be at “somehow greater risk” in the coming years, he noted.
Earlier in the day, the Russian Space Agency said via Twitter that the astronauts were sorted into their docked pods, in case they were to make a quick escape. The agency said the crew had returned to routine operations and the commander of the space station, the Russian Anton Shkaplerov, tweeted: “Friends, everything is fine with us!”
But the debris cloud posed a threat on every passing orbit – or every hour and a half – and all robotic activity on the US side was suspended. German astronaut Matthias Maurer also had to find a safer place to sleep than the European laboratory.
NASA’s Nelson noted that Russians and Americans have had a space partnership for half a century, starting with the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.
“I don’t want it to be threatened,” he told the AP, noting that both countries are needed for the space station. “You have to make it work together.”