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Russia defends anti-satellite test amid US criticism

This animation from the European Space Agency depicts the number of debris objects larger than 1 millimeter in Earth orbit.
This animation from the European Space Agency depicts the number of debris objects larger than 1 millimeter in Earth orbit. (Image credit: ESA)

Russia is fighting back amid criticism of its anti-satellite test Monday (Nov. 15) that forced the International Space Station crew into temporary shelter.

After the U.S. State Department condemned the anti-satellite test what it deems as "dangerous and irresponsible behavior" by Russia, a partner on the space station, officials with the Russian military are defending their launch and its effects.

Russia's Ministry of Defence also issued a Russian-language statement defending the test. The minister-general of the army, Sergei Shoigu, said that the test was successful and that "the resulting fragments do not pose any threat to space activities," according to a machine-generated translation to English.

The U.S. State Department said Monday that the test created a cloud of space debris made up of over 15,000 objects, calling it a threat to astronauts and cosmonauts, and space activities of all countries. The debris could pose a threat for years to come, experts have said. The space station's crew had to shelter in their return ships on Monday when the debris cloud was first detected.

Related: The worst space debris events of all time

Russia's space agency Roscosmos  wrote on Twitter Monday that the space debris cloud "has moved away from the ISS orbit", which is roughly 250 miles (400 km) above Earth. The space debris tracker LeoLabs estimates the debris cloud is at 273 to 323 miles (440 to 520 km) in altitude. However, "the station is in the green zone," Roscosmos added.

Roscosmos also issued a website statement praising the long-time collaboration of the ISS project, which Russia reportedly was considering leaving earlier this year due to U.S. sanctions.

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"Ensuring crew safety has always been and remains our top priority. Commitment to this principle is an underlying condition both in the manufacturing of Russian space equipment and in the program of its operation," Roscosmos said in the statement, which was written in English.

"We are convinced that only joint efforts by all spacefaring nations can ensure the safest possible coexistence and activities in outer space," Roscosmos added, noting that its own warning system on monitoring space debris is looking at the debris cloud "to prevent and counter all possible threats to the safety of the International Space Station and its crew."

In response to U.S. concerns about the orbit of the debris cloud relative to the orbit of the ISS, Russia's defense ministry said in media reports that the Americans knew there should be no concern about that.

“The U.S. knows for certain that the resulting fragments, in terms of test time and orbital parameters, did not and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities,” Russia's Defense Ministry said, according to NBC News.

Another report from Reuters suggests the Russian defense officials launched the test in the wake of the United States establishing the Space Force military branch in 2020, and added that the United States, China and India have all performed anti-satellite tests in the past.

Space debris has been a growing threat for satellites and astronauts in orbit, with the U.S. military and other officials tracking hundreds of thousands of debris pieces from spacecraft over the years. Scientists have long warned of reaching a tipping point, known as Kessler Syndrome after the scientist Donald Kessler who first studied it, in which debris in orbit spawns even more debris in a cascade effect. 

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson warned on Monday that Russia's anti-satellite test endangered not just the seven astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station, but also the three-person crew of China's Tiangong space station. 

"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," Nelson said in a statement. "Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board."

“All nations have a responsibility to prevent the purposeful creation of space debris from ASATs and to foster a safe, sustainable space environment," Nelson added.

NASA did issue concerns and condemnation about resulting space debris after the Indian test of 2019 and the Chinese test of 2007. As for the 2008 incident, NASA says the destruction was meant in part to overcome the risk of an uncontrolled satellite falling to Earth.

The United States Navy's subsequent destruction of defunct spy satellite USA-193 generated falling space junk that sparked sightings in the United States and Canada, although defense officials said they recovered no debris larger than a football.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.