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Space debris from Russian anti-satellite test will be a safety threat for years

A conceptual image illustrating space debris orbiting Earth.
A conceptual image illustrating space debris orbiting Earth. (Image credit: johan63/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Space debris created by a Russian anti-satellite missile test will pose a threat to satellites in low Earth orbit as well as astronauts aboard the International Space Station for years to come, experts reveal. 

The anti-satellite (ASAT) test targeted the defunct Soviet surveillance satellite Cosmos 1408, which orbited at an altitude of about 404 miles (650 kilometers) above Earth. The 2-ton spacecraft, dead since the mid-1980s, broke apart into at least 1,500 trackable fragments immediately upon the strike, creating a large cloud of debris. The space debris has forced  the astronauts and Russian cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to repeatedly take refuge in their transport vehicles. 

Experts now warn that this space debris will remain a danger for years to come, threatening satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), the heavily used region of space closest to Earth, as well as space station crews.

Related: The worst space debris events of all time

In addition to the 1,500 trackable fragments generated by the test, the event also created hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces that are invisible to Earth-based observers, the U.S. Space Command (USSC), which is responsible for military operations in outer space, said in a statement. 

"USSPACECOM's initial assessment is that the debris will remain in orbit for years and potentially for decades, posing a significant risk to the crew on the International Space Station and other human spaceflight activities, as well as multiple countries' satellites," USSPACECOM said in the statement. 

In fact, about half of the fragments might fall to Earth "within the next couple of years" but the remainder might remain hurtling through space for "more than a decade," Hugh Lewis, head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton, the U.K., and Europe's leading space debris expert told Space.com.

"Once the fragments are catalogued, I am expecting to see many close passes with satellites and other objects across quite a wide range of LEO, demonstrating the consequences for space safety," Lewis said. "I would not be surprised if the ISS had to make collision avoidance maneuvers for at least the next couple of years as a direct result."

Related: The most dangerous space weapons ever

Preliminary calculations suggest that the cloud of debris will increase the number of avoidance maneuvers performed by satellite operators all over the world by more than 100% in the next few years, Tim Flohrer, head of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Space Debris Office, told Space.com. 

"The peak can be even significantly higher than 100%," Flohrer added. "In this 400 to 500 kilometer altitude, the fragments will not survive long. We expect them to decay slowly over months and years so the risk increase will still be significant after one or two years."

In addition to the impact that this debris will continue to have on the International Space Station, SpaceX's internet-beaming mega-constellation Starlink, currently comprising nearly 1,850 satellites, also orbits in the affected region, Flohrer added.  

Experts and military leaders appeared shocked by the act, which will affect long-term safety of all operations in low Earth orbit. 

An artist's concept depicting the near-Earth orbital debris field, based on real data from the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office. (Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

"Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations," U.S. Army General James Dickinson and U.S. Space Command commander, said in the USSC statement. "The debris created by Russia's DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers."

In a statement to Russia's news agency Interfax, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the test but claimed its debris does not present any risk to orbiting spacecraft. 

"On November 15 of this year, the Russian Defense Ministry successfully conducted a test, as a result of which the inoperative Russian Tselina-D spacecraft, which had been in orbit since 1982, was struck," the Russian Defense Ministry said, according to Interfax. "The United States knows for certain that the resulting fragments did not represent and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities in terms of test time and orbit parameters."

Russia's space agency Roscosmos issued a separate statement on Tuesday (Nov. 16) morning, which, however, does not directly mention the ASAT test.

"For us, the main priority has been and remains to ensure the unconditional safety of the crew," Roscosmos said in the statement. "Adherence to this principle is laid both in the basis for the production of space technology in Russia and in the program of its operation."

While its impact and consequences has drawn far more concern, this is not the first ASAT test in recent years. In 2019, India conducted an anti-satellite missile test, which, however, targeted a satellite much closer to Earth, at about 175 miles (282 km). Most of the debris created by that strike therefore entered Earth's atmosphere within weeks or months, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

The impact of the Russian ASAT test, however, will be much more serious due to the higher altitude of the target satellite. Debris from an ASAT test conducted by China in 2007, which targeted a satellite at an even higher altitude of 540 miles (865 km), is still a major source of collision hazard in low Earth orbit today. 

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Tereza Pultarova

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.