It wasn’t exactly like the scenario in Gravity, but it came uncomfortably close. On Monday, astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station climbed into their Crew Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft and waited for hours, ready to return to Earth at a moment's notice.
The reason? Sometime late Friday night, the Russian military used an anti-satellite missile to destroy an aging Russian satellite orbiting, creating a debris field of more than 1,500 metal chunks large than a softball, whirling around the Earth at 15,000 miles per hour.
“The orbit crosses that of the International Space Station every 90 minutes,” Brian Weeden, director of planning at the nonprofit Secure World Foundation, which promotes the peaceful use of outer space, tells Inverse.
Thankfully, the ISS, which flies at 420 kilometers altitude, was not impacted and the crew appear to be safe for the short term. But it’s not a problem that’s going away anytime soon.
“We don't know how high it spread yet,” Weeden says, “but pretty much anything 1,000 kilometers and down probably has to think about or probably will have to deal with this debris for the next several years.”
U.S. officials have called the missile test, which threatened the lives of Russian Cosmonauts aboard the ISS, reckless. Russia has taken responsibility for the missile test and dismissed safety concerns, with Russia's Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu saying Tuesday that the missile “hit the old satellite with surgical precision.”
Like the debris pieces themselves, the geopolitics of the incident are irregular, concerning, and hard to pin down.
What’s happening now?— Right now, U.S. Space Command, NASA, and other space agencies are tracking the debris cloud from the extirpated satellite to see how much may re-enter the atmosphere and how much may spread out across the space lanes. The ISS is safe for now, but could be at risk again later as the materials spreads, as could other space stations and satellites. The Chinese Space Station flies around 390 kilometers altitude, Weeden notes, while there are many weather satellites between 70 and 100 kilometers. SpaceX’s Starlink constellation orbits at 550 kilometers.
That could impact space operations in two ways, Weeden says.
U.S. Space Command tracks thousands of pieces of space flotsam and jetsam and will let satellite operators know if their satellite is at risk for an upcoming collision. Operators then need to evaluate the risk and decide if they need to change their satellite’s orbit, which uses fuel and can reduce the lifespan of their satellite.
“In this area of low earth orbit, satellites will get one of those a week, or a couple of those a month,” Weeden says, maybe a dozen a week for large constellations.
The new debris could force satellite operators perform more evasive maneuvers, and “that adds a lot of operational cost,” he says.
Second, debris could strike a satellite, or another piece of space junk that cannot move out of the way, creating even more debris, which could then in turn strike more satellites or pieces of debris, creating more hazards.
This is called Kessler Syndrome, Weeden says, which Gravity got wrong by depicting a chain reaction that destroys every satellite in orbit in a matter of minutes. “The Kessler Syndrome is not like a nuclear chain reaction,” he says. “It's like a climate change chain reaction” — a slowly growing cloud of debris making more debris that takes years to de-orbit, increasing costs and risk for other space operations all the while.
Has this happened before?— The Russian missile test is not the first of its kind. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union conducted similar tests in the 1960s and 70s, according to Weeden, but those tests created little debris and there were fewer satellites in space at the time. Both nations put anti-satellite weaponry on the back burner with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Then in 2005, things got exciting again, when China started testing its anti-satellite weapon system — which then it hits something in 2007,” Weeden says. The U.S. destroyed a satellite in 2008, “and then the Indians hit something just a couple years ago in 2019.”
Of those three tests, the 2007 Chinese test had the most impact, Weeden says, generating around 3,000 pieces of debris of which 2,000 are still orbiting today.
Audio from onboard the ISS during the incident Monday.
Is it legal to intentionally create space junk?— When it comes to the letter of the law, there’s no prohibition against blowing stuff up in space and leaving a hazardous mess in the space lanes. “There's no internationally binding legal instrument that says a state shall not conduct debris creating space activities,” Chris Johnson, a space law advisor with the Secure World Foundation tells Inverse.
That’s not to say that legal arguments can’t be made that the Russian missile test didn’t violate a portion of the cornerstone of international space law, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, of which Russia and the U.S. are signatories. Article 9 of the treaty requires that nations conduct their exploration of space and celestial bodies, “so as to avoid their harmful contamination,” Johnson notes, and show “due regard” to the interests of other states’ space activities.
And “if any of that debris hits another state’s launched space object and cases physical damage,” Johnson says, “Russian is internationally liable under an obligation to pay compensation to put the suffered state back to a situation they would have been in had the accident not occurred.”
In 1978, the Soviet spy satellite Kosmos 954 crashed in northern Canada, spreading radioactive debris. Canada demanded compensation and the USSR paid it — though not the full amount, Jonson notes.
No nation ultimately attempted legal action after the 2007 Chinese missile test, but there were words of condemnation from the international community. So far, that’s been the reaction to the Russian test.
Air Vice-Marshal Godfrey of the U.K. Space Command condemned the test Monday saying, “Space is already a congested and contested domain, and irresponsible actions like this threaten the peaceful use of space by all.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken decried “Russia's reckless test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile against its own satellite, creating space debris that risks astronauts' lives,” a sentiment echoed by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
“Like Secretary Blinken, I’m outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action,” Nelson said in a statement. “It is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts.”
Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu claimed in a statement that the fragments don’t post a threat to any space activities, saying, “We've really experienced a successful forward-looking system.”
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, meanwhile, issued a statement Tuesday saying they’re committed to the safety of the astronauts, cosmonauts, and Chinese Taikonauts on the space stations.
“For us, the main priority has been and remains to ensure the unconditional safety of the crew,” the statement read. “Adherence to this principle is laid both in the basis for the production of space technology in Russia and in the program of its operation.”
“We are convinced that only the joint efforts of all space powers will be able to ensure the safest possible coexistence and activities in outer space,” the agency adds. “The Russian automated warning system for dangerous situations in near-earth space (ASPOS OKP) continues to monitor the situation in order to prevent and counter all possible threats to the safety of the International Space Station and its crew.”
What happens next?— Just what happens next isn’t clear, as the incident is still developing. The debris field itself will continue spreading and could impact space operations for years to come.
The political reaction could similarly spread in the coming days.
“We're gonna see probably other statements from other officials around the world. I would not be surprised if we saw something from Australia, or maybe Japan,” Johnson says. “Maybe maybe France, because they're quite strong on space debris.”
The incident comes shortly after the United Nations First Committee proposed the creation of an open-ended working group to study and prevent the weaponization of space, Johnson and Weeden note, and the introduction of UN Resolution 75/36, which seeks to define responsible and irresponsible behaviors in space.
“It's happening almost as an example of what is an irresponsible behavior,” Johnson says. “The UN General Assembly is adopting resolutions until the middle of December, so this is still an agenda item.”