In a test of its missile technology, Russia destroyed an old space satellite on Monday, littering Earth’s orbit with fragments and forcing astronauts on the International Space Station to temporarily take shelter.
The cloud of debris was generated when Cosmos 1408, a 2,200-kg defunct signals intelligence satellite launched in 1982, was blown up by a Russian anti-satellite missile. The US Department of State condemned the experiment for endangering “human spaceflight activities.”
“Earlier today, the Russian Federation recklessly conducted a destructive satellite test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites,” the department’s spokesperson Ned Price said at a press briefing on Monday. “The test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations.
The seven astronauts onboard the International Space Station were directed to close all hatches to external modules and climb into the Soyuz MS-19 and Crew Dragon capsules for safety. They remained there for about two hours, and will periodically close off and isolate sections of the ISS as the debris cloud crosses the station’s path every 90 minutes or so, according to NASA.
Only last week, the ISS performed an orbital burn to avoid any chance of smashing into the passing remains of a Chinese satellite that was blown up by Beijing.
The cloud of shrapnel that was once Cosmos 1408 will disperse and continue to occupy low-Earth orbit, where it all risks crashing into other objects. Some 1,500 pieces will probably remain in the region for decades. Small flecks of debris traveling at orbital speeds can cause huge amounts of damage, potentially setting off a chain reaction where collisions create more amounts of junk that go on to smash into more objects and so on.
This nightmare scenario, known as the Kessler syndrome, would make low Earth orbit a hostile environment as debris levels increase. It’d be difficult to launch future spacecraft without weighty armor and all existing satellites and space stations would be in danger of getting pelted by the junk.