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Science

This could be why Russia blew up its own satellite

There's a range of possible answers. None of them are great.

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The what, we know. On or about November 12, the Russian military tested an anti-satellite missile, or ASAT, by targeting and destroying a defunct Russian spy satellite.

The resulting debris field sent astronauts and Russian cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station scrambling for a potential emergency return to Earth, a hazard that could crop up many times over the next three or more years as the fragments slowly re-enter Earth’s atmosphere or find stable orbits.

It’s the “why” that is not yet clear:

Why would Russia destroy its own satellite in such a way that it might put its own cosmonauts at risk?

Why would a nation with such deep, historical investment in space travel develop such technology at all?

There are no clear answers to these questions, though experts have some theories, ranging from Russian making a mistake to an entirely domestic political dispute. But regardless of the reasoning and the theories, the reality of the resulting debris field — and any international fallout concerning the weaponization of space and the intentional creation of space debris — is not going away anytime soon.

What is the ASAT test?

On November 12, the Russian military used a ground-based ASAT to destroy a dead Soviet-era space satellite known as Kosmos 1408.

Russia had tested this type of ASAT — a “direct ascent” missile — numerous times in recent years, Victoria Samson, the Washington Office Director of the Secure World Foundation, tells Inverse. The Soviet Union also tested similar weapons during the Cold War, but November 12 was the first time Russia used the weapon to intercept and destroy a satellite.

Does the U.S. have ASAT?

The U.S. also tested ASAT technology during the Cold War, but like Russia, it never used ground-based ASATs to destroy a satellite until the 21st century. In 2008, the U.S. used a modified navy RIM-161 Standard Missile 3, or SM-3, to destroy USA-193, a failing spy satellite.

“In theory, SM-3s that were modified could provide that sort of capability,” Samson says. “It’s not deployed, necessarily, but it's out there.”

Which countries have anti-satellite missiles?

ASAT arsenals are not like conventional weapons batteries or even nuclear missiles in that it’s not clear that any nation has an array of such missiles deployed and ready to destroy satellites if military leaders give the order.

But we do know nations have demonstrated the capability. Beyond Russian and the U.S., that includes China and India.

China destroyed a defunct weather satellite in 2007, Samson notes, while in 2019, India’s Mission Shakti used a PDV-MK II interceptor missile to destroy a small satellite launched into orbit just weeks prior specifically to serve as a target.

India’s ASAT missile.Yevgeny Pakhomov/TASS/Getty Images

Why do countries have ASATs?

Historically, China and Russia have researched ASATs “as a hedge against U.S. space-based missile defenses,” Secure World Foundation Director of Planning Brian Weeden tells Inverse. They wanted to make sure that if the United States Built a Star Wars-like anti-nuclear missile defense system.

“Russia and China have a way to basically destroy that shield to ensure that they can still threaten us with nuclear weapons,” Weeden says. “Because to them, that is what creates the ability to prevent the U.S. from just doing whatever the hell it wants.”

In that sense, Russian ASAT development might fill a similar role to the recent hypersonic missile and “fractional orbital bombardment” system tested by China over the summer, he adds. “That’s all about negating missile defenses and providing another way to threaten and therefore make sure that this country can’t act unilaterally.”

But ASAT technology need not be exclusively focused on negating missile defenses, Michael Heil, former commander of the U.S. Air Force Space and Directed Energy Laboratory, tells Inverse. It can also be an extension of more traditional military operations concepts to outer space.

“It’s all about space control, or space supremacy, which is kind of like air superiority or air supremacy,” he says. “You ensure that you make space an area where you can operate, and you want to be able to deny operations in space to your adversary.”

To Heil, the recent Russian test could boil down to something as simple as Russia wanting to tell the world that it had the capability and will to conduct military operations in space.

“To me, what was new was the willingness to demonstrate that and then withstand the ire of the rest of the world in creating the space debris,” he says. “So I think they were sending a signal relative to their ability to hold space assets at risk.”

This chip on a window of the ISS was caused by either a small piece of space junk or a micrometeroid. NASA

Why this test and why now?

As to exactly why Russia chose to send that signal now, we can only speculate. It’s possible, Samson says, that internal political issues within Russian institutions drove the decision more than any analysis of international relations or strategy. “We always tend to assume that everything is being done at us, which is not the case,” she says.

Those internal Russian issues are not necessarily benign, however. “Russia’s space program, it’s kind of flailing,” Samson says. Their civil space program, Roscosmos, is hugely corrupt,” leading to quality control issues. Over the summer, a thruster on a Russian module on the International Space Station misfired, unexpectedly shifting the entire station.

“They’re having a lot of issues, and they don’t have a commercial space sector to speak of,” she adds, “so the real place where Russia can still have geopolitical power and prestige is through its military space program.”

In that scenario, the missile test is a way to proclaim that Russia is still a space power to be reckoned with, the international consequences be damned.

But Russian could also be anticipating those international consequences. A United Nations working group has been mulling rules around the weaponization of space, and Samson says it’s possible the ASAT test was conducted now as a way to beat any forthcoming moratorium on future tests. It’s a dynamic she says likely played into India’s ASAT test in 2019.

“The Indians are still very upset about the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,” Samson says. Going into effect in 1970, the treaty only recognizes five official nuclear weapons states: The US, Russian, China, France, and the U.K. India, having conducted its first nuclear tests in 1974, is not included in the club.

The idea with ASATs then, Samson says, is that following a forthcoming treaty, states that have demonstrated ASAT capability might be grandfathered in as “ASAT” states, creating a two-tiered system of “haves and have nots.”

Russia, and India, may have decided that they want to be among the “haves.”

“I see it more as a matter of national prestige,” Samson says. “It’s not enough to have your own human spaceflight program; you need to have some sort of counter-space capability.”

What worries Samson is that a moratorium on ground-based ASAT tests may not come soon enough — that more countries will push to test ASATs to avoid being left behind, with each test leaving harmful debris fields that will eventually hit something or someone.

“There’s no real way to responsibly hold these anti-satellite tests,” she says. From the recent Russian tests alone, “LEO Labs is the modeling stuff going up to 1,000 kilometers [altitude], which means it’s going to be around for decades, if not centuries.”