Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… in recent days, the United States learned of the latest test by Russia involving its use of anti-satellite missile technology. In our analysis of the incident, we’ll be looking at 1) what U.S. officials have said about the test, 2) how it may have potentially endangered operations aboard the International Space Station, and 3) why officials say that such tests conducted by Russia represent a threat to all nations operating in space.
And with that, it’s time that we direct our attention toward the concerning incident that has space experts worried about future orbital operations…
Russia’s Newest Anti-Satellite Missile
On Monday, it was announced that Russia performed a successful anti-satellite missile test, the results of which could signal new challenges for future operations in space by the United States and its allies.
“Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile on Nov. 15, 2021,” read a statement at the website of the United States Space Command on Monday. The missile successfully reached its target, a decommissioned Russian COSMOS 1408 satellite, resulting in the creation of significant amounts of debris in low-Earth orbit.
“The test so far has generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris,” the statement read, “and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris.”
According to a preliminary assessment by the agency, USSPACECOM believes that the current orbital debris field could remain in place for several decades, and could thereby pose “a significant risk to the crew on the International Space Station and other human spaceflight activities, as well as multiple countries’ satellites.”
Although similar tests have been carried out by Russia in the past, they were deemed non-destructive, unlike the test on Monday that resulted in the debris in question. General James Dickinson, USSPACECOM commander, said that in addition to posing a lingering threat for future space operations by the U.S. and its allies, the debris left behind by Monday’s test represents Russia’s disregard for the preservation of a safe environment for future space studies.
“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” Dickinson was quoted saying, adding that such activities will contribute to future collision avoidance maneuvers and other preemptive actions in space to help mitigate threats.
“Space activities underpin our way of life,” Dickinson said, “and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”
Another Near Miss
Following Monday’s test, astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) were notified to take shelter as the station made its past the debris field.
Although the United States did not initially release a statement regarding the source of the debris potentially endangering the ISS at that time, a mission update from NASA identified the debris as having belonged to a satellite.
“The ISS team has been notified of a satellite breakup that may create sufficient debris to pose a conjunction threat to the ISS,” read Monday’s ISS Daily Summary Report. “As part of the nominal procedure for ISS conjunctions, this morning the crew closed all hatches and both Dragon and Soyuz crews sheltered in their respective vehicles.”
“Out of caution for crew safety, all radial hatches will remain closed until ground teams have determined there is no longer a conjunction threat to the ISS. This has impacted several of today’s activities,” Monday’s report stated.
“I’m outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action,” Nelson said. “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. Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board.”
The incident marked the latest in a series of dangerous events that have transpired aboard the ISS in recent months. In August, an “On-Orbit Anomaly” resulted in the unplanned firing of a set of thrusters shortly after the docking of Roscosmos’ ‘Nauka’ Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) to the ISS, which led to the space station being moved out of its proper orientation. The incident, described as one of the worst in the history of the operation of the ISS, was followed just weeks later by a report of smoke aboard the ISS, which appeared to have resulted from outdated Russian equipment aboard the station.
However, Monday’s test represents an all-new kind of safety concern for the U.S. and other spacefaring nations, and officials have been clear about what they believe it conveys about Russia’s intentions.
“A Threat to All Nations”
“Russia is developing and deploying capabilities to actively deny access to and use of space by the United States and its allies and partners,” Dickinson said following Monday’s test. “Russia’s tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons clearly demonstrate that Russia continues to pursue counterspace weapon systems that undermine strategic stability and pose a threat to all nations,” he added.
Similar sentiments were echoed by Bill Nelson, who said that all nations “have a responsibility to prevent the purposeful creation of space debris from ASATs and to foster a safe, sustainable space environment.”
“NASA will continue monitoring the debris in the coming days and beyond to ensure the safety of our crew in orbit,” Nelson said.
Monday’s test was not the first time that a Russian test involving anti-satellite weaponry drew criticism from Dickinson. Last December, a similar test aroused concerns from U.S. officials, of which USSPACECOM warned that if it were “tested on an actual satellite or used operationally, it will cause a large debris field that could endanger commercial satellites and irrevocably pollute the space domain.”
If Monday’s test is any indication, the U.S. Space Command had been entirely correct in its assessment in 2020 about what the result of such a test would be. In light of this, Russia’s most recent demonstration of its anti-satellite technologies foreshadows a troubling future in the space domain… not only for official activities by the U.S. and its allies, but also for future commercial space operations as well.
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