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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Todd Shields

Debris from Russian anti-satellite test endangers space station crew

A Russian anti-satellite missile destroyed a satellite on Monday, spewing debris into orbit and endangering the International Space Station and its seven occupants, according to U.S. and British authorities.

Russia fired an anti-satellite missile at one of its own satellites, generating more than 1,500 pieces of debris and hundreds of thousands of smaller chunks, according to the U.S. State Department.

“Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long term sustainability of our outer space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weapons and weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical,” Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, said at a briefing in Washington.

Five astronauts and two cosmonauts are aboard the space station, which is linked with two craft that carried passengers from Earth — the U.S. SpaceX Crew Dragon and a Russian Soyuz. The crew got into the Soyuz and Crew Dragon craft as the debris got close to the station.

The Russian news agency Tass, quoting a source it didn’t identify, said the director of the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, plans to discuss the matter tomorrow by phone with NASA.

A spokeswoman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center said the agency was gathering information, before it could comment.

LeoLabs Inc., a private space-object tracking company, said data showed “multiple objects” near the expected location of Cosmos 1408. The Soviet signals intelligence satellite was launched in 1982, according to NASA.

The U.S. military said it was tracking the event.

“U.S. Space Command is aware of a debris-generating event in outer space,” the service said in a statement. “We are actively working to characterize the debris field and will continue to ensure all space-faring nations have the information necessary to maneuver satellites if impacted.”

Ben Wallace, the U.K. defense secretary, tweeted that “the debris resulting from this test will remain in orbit putting satellites and human spaceflight at risk for years to come.”

More than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or “space junk,” are tracked by the Department of Defense, according to NASA. Near-Earth orbits hold much more debris that’s too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions.

Because debris and spacecraft are traveling at extremely high speeds (approximately 15,700 miles per hour, or 25,000 kilometers per hour), an impact of even a tiny piece of orbiting junk with a spacecraft could create big problems, according to the space agency.

Moreover, chunks of a smashed satellite can disperse into an elliptical orbit, with some of the debris hundreds of miles higher or lower than the undisturbed orbit, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, a collaboration between Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution, said in a tweet.

“Debris-generating anti-satellite tests are a bad idea and should never be carried out,” McDowell tweeted.

Space debris is a growing problem as thousands of satellites are launched, populating orbits more quickly than they are removed by active means or orbital decay.

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