Russia Blows Up Satellite, Causing ISS Astronauts To Shelter From Debris

Artist's impression of a missile destroying a satellite, as happened yesterday to the Cosmos 1408. Image Credit: edobric/Shutterstock.com

The Russian military has blown up one of their own satellites with a missile, creating space debris that poses dangers to everyone in orbit – including Russian astronauts currently on the International Space Station (ISS).

On November 15, a ground-based missile was used to destroy Cosmos 1408, which launched in 1982. The resulting cloud of material could set off an avalanche of future collisions, creating more threats in low Earth orbit. It comes just a week after the ISS had to take evasive action to avoid a piece of Fengyun-1C, which China blew up in 2007. 

ISS astronauts sheltered from the threat of a debris cloud, attributed by NASA to Cosmos 1408's destruction. “With its long and storied history in human spaceflight, it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said.

Low Earth orbit is already filled with thousands of working satellites, many dead ones, and millions of pieces of space junk – which can be anything from tools dropped during spacewalks to chips of paint. Although most space junk bits are very small, they can still be hazardous if their speed or direction is very different from whatever they hit.

The long-term threat is the Kessler Syndrome, where a particular altitude is so crowded that a chain reaction of collisions begins, with each impact creating new pieces of debris that themselves increase the risk of fresh collisions.

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Cosmos 1408 could easily turn out to be the single worst event in the history of humanity's littering of space. It weighed 2,200 kilograms (4,850 pounds), while Fengyun-1C was only 880 kilograms (1,940 pounds), Dr Alice Gorman of Flinders University told IFLScience.

Gorman, who wrote the book Dr Space Junk vs The Universe: Archaeology and the future, said Fengyun-1C eventually became 2,000 pieces large enough to track – more than 10 centimeters (4 inches) across. So far, the US state department claims to have identified 1,500 pieces large enough to be tracked from Cosmos 1408, but Gorman expects that to rise. Other satellites used for missile target practice have been much smaller, and consequently produced less junk.

With an orbit varying between 645 and 679 kilometers (400 and 422 miles), the pieces of Cosmos 1408 are well within the zone where atmospheric drag will cause their orbits to decay, eventually removing the problem. However, Gorman said, the timeline for this is unpredictable. “They always say things will decay quickly,” Gorman told IFLScience. “That's what they say about Starlink. If quickly meant a few hours that is great, but potentially this will be decades.” Half the pieces from Fengyun 1C are still in orbit 14 years later.

Projects like Starlink are not only threatened by the Kessler Syndrome, they also make it far more likely. Shifting to higher orbits would not only require extra fuel, Gormon noted, but change infrastructure requirements for ground-based receptors. Moreover, while orbital decay works slowly at currently popular orbits, it virtually stops above 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles), giving us no way to fix the problem.

Cosmos 1408's destruction was particularly shocking as it occurred at a time when Russian cosmonauts are on board the ISS, and could be at risk of being struck by one of the newly created objects. Russia's space agency Roscosmos understands the dangers, having boosted the ISS clear of the Fengyun 1C piece last week using one of its supply vessels.

Gorman said her sources indicated Roscosmos was not aware of the plans by their own nation's military until after Cosmos 1408 had been blown up, something not contradicted by the curious statement the agency issued.

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