Russian Anti-Satellite Missile Test Draws Condemnation from World Leaders

Photo Credit: NASA / Wikimedia Commons

Russia has carried out a missile test, destroying one of its satellites. The incident has caused international outrage, with officials citing the potential threat debris could cause to the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit satellites.

Angara-A5 rocket launch
Rocket launch from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, 2020. (Photo Credit: ИА Военинформ / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Russia conducted the test on November 15, 2021, launching the anti-satellite missile from Plesetsk Cosmodrome, 500 miles north of Moscow. The missile destroyed an old Soviet spy satellite – the Kosmos 1408 – that was once part of the country’s Tselina radio signal surveillance program. It was launched into orbit in 1982.

According to US State Department spokesman Ned Price, the destruction of Kosmos 1408 created around 1,500 large pieces of debris, as well as hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments. While the larger objects can be tracked, others are too small to be detected from Earth.

This is a threat to the ISS and China‘s Tiangong space station, as they orbit near or through the debris cloud at an altitude of between 273 and 323 miles above Earth.

The International Space Station orbiting the Earth
International Space Station photographed by Expedition 56 crew members from a Soyuz spacecraft after undocking. (Photo Credit: NASA / Wikimedia Commons)

Condemnation of the test is coming from numerous countries, including the United States, where officials have emphasized the long-term dangers and potential economic fallout that could arise. NASA has also released a statement regarding the dangers those aboard the ISS face, with Administrator Bill Nelson saying:

“Earlier today, due to the debris generated by the destructive Russian Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test, ISS astronauts and cosmonauts undertook emergency procedures for safety.

Like Secretary Blinken, I’m outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action. With its long and storied history in human spaceflight, it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international 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.

“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,” he concluded.

Space Command Chief US Army General James Dickinson added that the missile test “will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance meaneuvers.”

The satellites in question include those that provide phone and broadband service, GPS systems and weather forecasting, all of which are integral to the likes of the financial system, the entertainment industry and aerospace activities.

Vladimir Putin sitting at a desk
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo Credit: Alexei Druzhinin / Getty Images)

As to the emergency procedures taken, NASA reports that the ISS’ crew – four US astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts and a German astronaut – was directed to close the hatches to radial modules, including Kibo, Columbus, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, the Quest Joint Airlock, and the Permanent Multipurpose Module. Hatches between the US and Russian segments of the station remained open.

An additional precautionary measure was taken to shelter the crew after “two passes through or near the vicinity of the debris cloud.” This meant donning their spacesuits and boarding spacecrafts. While the ISS passes through or near the cloud every 93 minutes, it was only necessary to shelter twice, according to a risk assessment by the debris office and ballistics specialists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Entrance sign to the Johnson Space Center
Entrance to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. (Photo Credit: Kacey Cherry / Getty Images)

“Russia is developing and deploying capabilities to actively deny access to and use of space by the United States and its allies and partners,” said Dickinson. “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.”

The Russian military fought back against claims the test was dangerous, saying it was carrying out planned activities to strengthen its defense capabilities. “The United States 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.”

Sergey Shoygu, Russia’s defense minister, added that the missile struck the satellite “with surgical precision. The fragments that were produced do not pose any threat to activities in space.”

The country’s defense ministry has called America’s statements “hypocritical,” saying the recent test was motived by the country’s actions in space that were “assessed as a threat.” It also added that it has knowledge that the Pentagon is testing weapons in orbit.