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Space debris from Russian anti-satellite missile test spotted in telescope images and video

These radar images from the Numerica Corporation  show the Cosmos 1408 satellite before (left) and after an impact from a Russian anti-satellite test on Nov. 15, 2021. (Image credit: Numerica Corporation)

Pieces of a shattered Soviet-era satellite are visible in new telescope images after its destruction by a Russian anti-satellite weapons test on Monday (Nov. 15).

The images were captured by Numerica Corp., a Colorado-based company provides tracking of space debris objects, and shared by the company's partner Slingshot Aerospace on Twitter. They show images and video of the debris in the wake of a direct-ascent anti-satellite test by Russia Monday that sent a missile from the ground to destroy a defunct satellite called Cosmos 1408.

The telescopic footage shows just some of the more than 1,500 trackable pieces of debris from Cosmos 1408 after its destruction by Russia. The U.S. Space Department, U.S. military officials and NASA administrator Bill Nelson are among the authorities condemning Russia for the act, which they said put the International Space Station at risk from the debris.

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In a description with the images, Slingshot said Numerica "imaged the debris field created by the Russian anti-satellite test against #Cosmos1408." Numerica has a global telescope network and tracking software to assist in space domain awareness, according to its website.

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While Slingshot said Numerica is wholly responsible for the images, Slingshot told Space.com that it also has a product called Slingshot Beacon that uses data feeds from several sources for space debris tracking.

"We will analyze data feeds and Conjunction Data Messages (CDMs) from the U.S. government and other sources to present to space operators," marketing manager Madeline Reto said in an e-mail Tuesday (Nov. 16). "We determine which of their assets are at high risk of conjunctions. In situations like this, operators can get thousands of government CDMs so [that] Slingshot ensures customers only have to track the high risk ones."

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Already the event has had ripple effects on international space operations. The seven-person Expedition 66 crew, which includes two Russian cosmonauts and three American astronauts, took temporary shelter in their return ships Monday as the orbiting complex passed by the debris cloud. 

The space station is said to be moving through the debris field every 90 minutes; it orbits at roughly 250 miles (400 km) above Earth. Space debris tracker LeoLabs suggests the cloud of satellite pieces ranges in altitude between 273 miles and 323 miles (440 to 520 km) above Earth.

China also has a low-Earth orbit Tiangong space station module, Tianhe, that currently has three astronauts on board. It is unclear if the crew is taking any special measures as a result of the incident. Tianhe's average altitude is roughly 229 miles (368 km).

Russia and the United States are the major partners of the ISS, and their collaboration on the project dates to the early 1990s amid occasional spats between the countries, including reported threats by Russia to leave the ISS program in June. 

In August, NASA and Roscosmos said their collaboration is still strong despite a July incident that saw the newly arrived Russian Nauka module accidentally tilt the space station by 540 degrees, causing a temporary spacecraft emergency. The astronauts were in no danger, NASA said at the time. Thruster misfirings on a Russian Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft altered the ISS orientation again in October for about 30 minutes.

A NASA statement about the new debris incident Monday noted the hatches between the U.S. and Russian side of the space station segments remain open.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.