A Russian Test Has Placed the ISS in Danger of Space Junk Collisions

It's 'certainly a great way to bond as a crew'.
Brad Bergan
The International Space Station, in low-Earth orbit.3DSculptor / iStock

A weapons test executed by Russia has generated more than 1,500 chunks of supersonic space debris that could threaten the lives of seven astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station, according to an initial report from AP News.

Four U.S. astronauts, one German, and two Russian cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station were forced to take shelter in docked capsules to minimize the risk to their lives or livelihood from potential damage as at least 1,500 pieces of supersonic debris passed within the trajectory of the station.

The supersonic debris is space junk, and the pieces are massive enough to show up on radar, and will continue to pose a danger as it orbits the Earth for days, thanks to Russia's anti-satellite weapons test. "It was dangerous. It was reckless. It was irresponsible," said Ned Price of the U.S. State Department, in the report. In addition to the 1,500 fragments were countless other fragments that are too tiny to track. But with their outsized momentum, they still pose a risk to the ISS, and other orbiting satellites. "We are going to continue to make very clear that we won't tolerate this kind of activity," added Price.

Harvard astronomer condemns anti-satellite tests

NASA's Mission Control also said the ISS may continue to remain in heightened threat status for days as the swarm of supersonic space junk continues to interfere with science research on the station. Four of the current seven crewmembers had arrived at the orbital station on Thursday night. One of the astronauts, NASA's Mark Vande Hei, said of the ordeal that it was "a crazy but well-coordinated day" before going to sleep, according to the AP News report. "It was certainly a great way to bond as a crew, starting off with our very first work day in space." The United States' Space Command is meanwhile continuing to track the cloud of orbiting space junk. "Russia conducted an anti-satellite missile test," read a tweet from Space Command. "Russia continues to weaponize space. [We stand] ready to protect/defend US/allied interests from aggression in the space domain."

Earlier on Monday, Russia's Space Agency Roscosmos officially confirmed the ordeal, tweeting: "The Space Station crew is routinely performing operations according to the flight program. The orbit of the object, which forced the crew today to move into spacecraft according to standard procedures, has moved away from the ISS orbit. The station is in the green zone." But there were several transits of the debris field which posed a risk to the station and other satellites, according to a tweet from Astronomer Jonathan McDowell, of Harvard's Center for Astrophysics. "A few minutes away from the next debris field transit for ISS." McDowell also spoke generally about the implications of testing anti-satellite weapons in such a way, condemning unilaterally such use of space for military purposes. "I condemned the 2007 Chinese test, the 2008 US test, the 2019 Indian test, and I equally condemn this one," another tweet read. "Debris-generating antisatellite tests are a bad idea and should never be carried out." But, with China, Russia, and the U.S. and its allies scaling up their space war tactics research and tests, this will probably not be the last time the ISS and other orbital endeavors are endangered from a fresh batch of supersonic space debris.