Credit: NASA


Russia now admittedly carried out a direct-ascent ASAT (anti-satellite) missile mission that took out its own spacecraft, destroying Cosmos-1408 – a Soviet Electronic and Signals Intelligence (ELINT) Tselina-D satellite launched in 1982 from the Plesetsk cosmodrome.

No longer operational, Tselina-D was designed to determine the precise location, activity, and other details of radio emitters. Data would be stored onboard and downloaded to Soviet ground stations.

The destruction of the satellite was reportedly carried out by an Earth-launched Russian PL-19 Nudol missile.

This test, as best that can now be appraised, produced over 1,500 pieces of “trackable” orbital garbage amongst hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller bits and pieces of orbital refuge.

But detectable and trackable are not the same thing. That Russian spy satellite has been reduced to a storm cloud of orbital debris.

Duck and cover on the International Space Station.
Credit: Roscosmos

Shelter from the storm

From NASA, word is that the International Space Station (ISS) is passing through or near the debris cloud every 90 minutes, and the need to shelter by the station crew was only during the second and third passes of the event, based on a risk assessment made by the debris office and ballistics specialists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Ministry of Defense was quick to point out that the International Space Station was not in danger, with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu confirming the successful completion of tests of the anti-satellite system by Russian troops.

Credit: Russia’s Ministry of Defense

“It struck the old satellite with jewelry. The fragments formed do not pose any threat to space activity,” he said during a working trip to the Voronezh region, as reported by Russia’s RIA Novosti news service.

But suggestions that all that ASAT test leftovers pass at a time when the station is not there are also unlikely to be true as the event evolves, according to experts.

Moreover, as the jumble of debris decays in Earth orbit, they will pass both the International Space Station and China’s in-construction space station, potentially putting both of those orbiting assets at risk. The number and size of those objects will decide how much peril those facilities face.

Needless to say – or is it? – that there are loads of other spacecraft that could be impacted by the detritus of the Russian ASAT test.

Tipping point?

Of course, many in the space community are justifiably upset; All nations have a responsibility to prevent the “purposeful creation” of space debris from ASATs and to foster a safe, sustainable space environment.

From Antony J. Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State: “The events of November 15, 2021, clearly demonstrate that Russia, despite its claims of opposing the weaponization of outer space, is willing to jeopardize the long-term sustainability of outer space and imperil the exploration and use of outer space by all nations through its reckless and irresponsible behavior.

Signing of the Outer Space Treaty. Soviet Ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin,
UK Ambassador Sir Patrick Dean, US Ambassador Arthur J. Goldberg, US President Lyndon B. Johnson and others observe as US Secretary of State Dean Rusk signs the Outer Space Treaty on January 27, 1967 in Washington, DC
Source: UNOOSA.

Several space policy wonks are dragging out Article IX of the UN Outer Space Treaty that if a State Party to the Treaty which has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by another State Party in outer space, “would cause potentially harmful interference with activities in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, may request consultation concerning the activity or experiment.”

While there are specialists that don’t see the Russian ASAT consequences as a tipping point scenario, it is clear this incident is spurring quite the dialogue. However, at the end of the day, is it too little talk or perhaps too much talking and no action? To what extent have other countries — including the United States — aided and abetted the actions of Russia in seeking ASAT know-how?

And so the world spins, surrounded by increasing amounts of orbiting riffraff.

Oh wait, my Starlink is on the blink.

What’s your view?

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