NASA Says Debris From India’s Anti-satellite Test Could Threaten ISS

Jim Bridenstine describes military test as a 'terrible thing'.
Jessica Miley

NASA has condemned India for shooting one of its own satellites saying resulting space debris may threaten the International Space Station. India shot one of its own satellite last week as part of a test of anti-satellite weaponry. India’s president said the test had shown the rest of the world that India was now a ‘space nation.’ 


"A while ago, our scientists shot down a live satellite at a low-earth orbit. I congratulate all scientists who have made this possible and made India a much stronger nation," Modi said in a national broadcast. NASA, it seems, is less jubilant about the event. 

Debris to small to track

According to The Guardian, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told employees that the satellite had exploded into pieces some dangerously large but unfortunately too small to track. He said some of the much larger pieces, around 10 cm, had been able to be tracked and that the agency had their eyes on at least 60 pieces. 

Despite the satellite being destroyed at a low altitude of approximately 289 km some debris has still gone above the ISS which is at an orbit height of about 400 km. Bridenstine said that at least 24 pieces had been tracked going above the ISS.

Terrible thing 

He described this as a ‘terrible thing’’. “That kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight,” he said. According to the US military, which tracks space debris threats against the ISS, the Indian satellite explosion increased the risk of collision between the ISS and space debris by 44%. 

This number will lower as the debris burn up as they enter the atmosphere. At the time of the test, India has said the resulting debris would not pose a threat to other orbiting objects and that the debris would fall back onto the earth within weeks. The satellite explosion has been criticized in India too where many accused president Modi of using the test as a campaign tool in the weeks before the election. 

Modi accused of self-promotion

One opposition member has indicated they will lodge a complaint about the timing of the test with the electoral commission. NASA estimates there are more than 500,000 pieces of debris larger than a marble in orbit around the earth. The debris is a threat to all space vehicles but especially to the ISS or other craft with humans aboard. 

There are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth which is traveling at approximately 28000 km/h. But even very tiny untraceable pieces of debris like a paint fleck can smash a window on the ISS when traveling at these speeds. 

“The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris,” said Nicholas Johnson, NASA chief scientist for orbital debris. 

A previous satellite destruction demonstrations also contributed greatly to the debris problem. Back in 2007 a Chinese anti-satellite test, destroyed an old weather satellite, adding more than 3,000 pieces to the debris problem.

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