Over the last several years, Russia has struggled to maintain a forefront position in space technology, to a point where they’re now considered a liability to the rest of the world. With the most recent incident involving the firing of an anti-satellite weapon that placed the crew of the International Space Station in danger, big questions surround Russia’s future as a ‘white hat’ in the space arena.
Russia was once a world leader when it came to space affairs. They were responsible for the tech that launched the first satellite, dog, man, woman, and spacewalker into orbit. When the Soviet Union disintegrated about 30 years ago, the new and post-Cold War Russia continued the Soviet space legacy. Working alongside other space-faring nations like the United States, Russia was an ally, albeit a prickly one. But things haven’t gone as planned.
Russia’s most recent “reckless” action in space has had The Debrief take another look. Is Russia quickly becoming the mad dog prowling around Earth’s orbit?
Russian Weapon Test Threatens the ISS
This week, Russia was yet again involved in a controversy regarding space affairs. They fired a missile at one of their old satellites (Kosmos-1408) in an anti-satellite test (ASAT). The debris from the resulting explosion forced astronauts in the ISS to take shelter in a pair of spacecraft that were ready to return to Earth in the event of a collision.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson referred to the incident as “unconscionable” and expressed his outrage in a press release late Monday.
“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,” he said.
However, this isn’t the first time Russia has been engaged in some other questionable overt actions that endanger assets in space.
In September of 2018, the country positioned an older spy satellite near a sensitive French communications platform. According to defense officials, the Russian rig was “too close for comfort” and had French leaders wondering if Russia was attempting to listen in military communications. Russia has publicly denied these allegations. A year prior, in 2017, several off-book Russian space launches gave the rest of the world pause as the country placed several unknown small space vehicles into orbit to “inspect Russian satellites.” Last year, British and American intelligence agencies pointed to another test where Russia allegedly fired an anti-satellite weapon in space.
ASAT systems are concerning because they can easily be converted into ‘space war tech’ designed to attack other countries’ satellites. But even if countries use it to destroy their space objects, as Russia did, it still poses a threat to anyone who’s operating in orbit because of the debris it creates. As a result of this recent explosion, at least 1500 new pieces of space “junk” orbiting the planet have been created with hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces that could be created in the future.
However, even when it isn’t testing space-based weapons, Russia’s limited ability to place safe assets into space is a liability.
Russia’s Issues Onboard the ISS
Three years ago, in August of 2018, one of the Russian Soyuz capsules somehow managed to pass Roscosmos verifications and reach the International Space Station with a small puncture hole in it. The 2-millimeter hole was venting the station’s breathable air into space, causing a drop in air pressure.
The damage wasn’t immediately threatening but uncontrolled depressurization can lead to several consequences so the crew quickly tried to find the hole, patched it, and then sent the capsule back to Earth.
Experts have debated on what could’ve been the cause for the hole (some of them even suggested that it could’ve been manmade, either by accident or not) but until now, that is still to be determined.
A few months later, another Soyuz capsule was involved in an accident. The rocket that was transporting two crewmates (an American and a Russian) to the ISS had a booster malfunction.
During the flight, 31 miles above the Earth’s surface, one of the rocket’s boosters failed and stuck to the main rocket instead of detaching. The capsule containing the passengers was forced to eject and, fortunately, parachuted safely back to Kazakhstan.
The failure was a big cause for concern because Soyuz was the only human-rated spacecraft at the time, meaning that it was the only spacecraft with certification that allowed safe human transportation to space, and was relied upon by NASA, Europe, Russia, and other partners.
Roscosmos shared footage of the moment when the malfunction happened, on Twitter.
Earlier this year, Russia’s Nauka laboratory module launched from Kazakhstan and headed towards the ISS. A few hours after docking, the module unexpectedly fired its maneuvering thrusters, causing the entire space station to spin 540 degrees before stopping upside down.
For an entire half-hour, NASA controllers were unable to stabilize the station, as only controllers in Russia had access to Nauka’s remote controls, but even they had trouble taking care of the situation.
Eventually, controllers managed to turn on the thrusters from another module, allowing the station to regain control of its attitude until the Russian module’s thrusters could be turned off. They managed to trace the reasons behind the malfunction to a software glitch, which was corrected, and now the Nauka research module operates normally.
A similar event occurred just three months later when another Soyuz (MS-18) spacecraft suffered from a thruster malfunction. The module fired up its thrusters for a test run, as planned, before departure but they continued working on their own after the test was over.
Once again, the ISS lost attitude control and was pushed away by 57 degrees, but within 30 minutes everything was back to normal, as flight controllers were able to stabilize the station. To this moment no one knows why exactly the thrusters continued firing after the test, nor why and how they then stopped firing on their own.
Russia’s Space Program Needs an Overhaul, or It Needs to Respectfully Bow Out
Russia’s reputation of building safe space tech is continuously dwindling with every new incident that occurs. “The pattern of poor quality control in new hardware in the Russian space program has been around for many years,” John Logsdon, a professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute said in an interview.
Over the years, Roscosmos has been facing funding problems.
“Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian space program has been chronically underfunded,” Chris Impey, a University of Arizona astronomer, told The Daily Beast. The Soyuz capsules were once a good source of income, working as rental rides to the ISS, but eventually, time caught up with them and they started looking less and less safe.
The next step in space exploration is the creation of a lunar settlement, but there is some concern as to whether Russia should play a role in its design, development, and even use.
“If Russian hardware isn’t reliable, or even safe, that probably reduces their leverage,” David Burbach, a space expert at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, said.
Considering the many incidents resulting from Russia’s aging and often inadequate hardware and software, or the fact that they have been caught engaging in some very reckless and even clandestine behavior, the rest of the space community is becoming increasingly concerned with this old mad dog lurking around the orbital neighborhood. Will it be time to start shooing that dog away? Or worse, trying to have it put down?
Raquel is a forensic geneticist turned freelance writer. She has a knack for technology and a passion for science. You can follow her at scitechcorner.com and on Twitter @theRaquelSantos.
Follow and connect with MJ Banias on Twitter: @MJBanias