Did Russia just launch an anti-satellite test that created a cloud of space junk?

Another photo of the International Space Station shared by cosmonaut Novitsky on Twitter on Sept. 29, 2021.
Another photo of the International Space Station shared by cosmonaut Novitsky on Twitter on Sept. 29, 2021. (Image credit: Oleg Novitsky/Roscosmos via Twitter)

Editor's note: The U.S. Department of State spokesperson Ned Price confirmed in a press briefing Nov. 15 that Russia did conduct an ASAT test  and "the test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations." Read our updated story.

There's a debris field in Earth's orbit currently causing astronauts on the International Space Station to seek refuge. Reports are suggesting that this debris could be from a Russian anti-satellite test.

"U.S. Space Command is aware of a debris-generating event in outer space," U.S. Space Command (USSC) told Space.com in an emailed statement. This debris, which the International Space Station passes through every 90 minutes, has caused the station's seven onboard astronauts to take temporary refuge in their Soyuz and Dragon crew capsules. Russia's space agency Roscosmos has confirmed the debris interaction to Space.com; NASA has not yet commented on the situation.

These reports of a debris field causing the station's inhabitants to relocate coincide with reports from several space experts that Russia may have tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in orbit, spurring speculation that the test could have had something to do with the creation of this space junk

Related: The worst space debris events of all time

There is currently no official statement from USSC, NASA, Russia's space agency Roscosmos or any other party on whether an ASAT test occurred, the origins of the debris or if the two are at all related.

"We are actively working to characterize the debris field and will continue to ensure all space-faring nations have the information necessary to maneuver satellites if impacted. We are also in the process of working with the interagency, including the State Department and NASA, concerning these reports and will provide an update in the near future," USSC added in the statement.

However, while reports of an ASAT test coinciding with this debris event have yet to be confirmed, suspicions online continue.

"Earlier today, the astronauts took shelter in their, essentially their lifeboat, because of a short-notice warning of potential debris. There then was also a rumor that that debris came from a derelict Russian satellite that experienced some sort of fragmentation event," with further rumor that that fragmentation was caused by an ASAT test, space policy expert Brian Weeden, a director of program planning at Secure World Foundation, told Space.com.

Weeden added that as of right now, USSC hasn't cataloged the debris so we do not know where it is, how much of it there is and where it came from. However, Weeden did point to online reports from astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts that showed that a dead Russian satellite was orbiting at an altitude somewhat close to the space station.

And so, Weeden explained, if that satellite was targeted by an ASAT test, "it'd generate a bunch of debris that could affect the space station."

"Reports that the debris cloud could be from Cosmos 1408, but nothing confirmed yet and no actual data available," McDowell tweeted. Cosmos 1408 is an old Soviet satellite that launched in 1982 and that has been essentially "dead" for many years.

Additional claims of an ASAT test have been heard online.

"Two US officials confirm a major Russian anti-satellite weapons test over the weekend," CNN correspondent Kristin Fisher tweeted. Fisher specified, reassuring that USSC "is not attributing the debris to Russia or an ASAT test. But two US officials are," she tweeted. Fisher did not name the two officials referenced.

With these claims in mind, McDowell added on Twitter that "With LeoLabs confirming debris "near" Cosmos 1408 and CNN quoting US officials that there was an ASAT test, rumors are solidifying into a consistent story that indeed a Russian antisatellite test on Nov 13 or 14 hit Cosmos 1408 causing a debris cloud intersecting the ISS orbit."

A history of ASAT missile tests

This would not be the first time that Russia has launched such a test. In 2020, the U.S. Space Command reported three ASAT tests from Russia. These tests see anti-satellite missiles directed towards small satellites in low-Earth orbit. 

When the satellites are hit, it can create a field of debris that could "irrevocably pollute the space domain," USSC said in a statement following Russia's third ASAT test in 2020.

"Russia's persistent testing of these systems demonstrates threats to [the] U.S. and allied space systems are rapidly advancing," U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, USSC commander, added in the 2020 statement.

Russia has so far demonstrated its capability with two different types of space weapons, direct-ascent ASAT missiles which launch from Earth and a space-based system, which was previously launched in July 2020.

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.