Marcia Dunn | Associated Press
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida. More than 1,500 pieces of space debris have been created as a result of testing Russian weapons, which now threaten seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station, according to US officials, who called the strike reckless and irresponsible.
On Monday, the State Department confirmed that the wreckage was from an old Russian satellite destroyed by a missile.
“Needless to say, I am outraged. It’s shameless, ”NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press. “It is incredible that the Russian government will conduct this test and threaten not only international astronauts, but also its own astronauts aboard the station,” as well as three people at the Chinese space station.
Nelson said astronauts now face four times the risk they normally would. And this is based on debris large enough to be tracked, with hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces that go unnoticed – “any of which could do massive damage if it gets to the right place.”
Condemning Russia, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said satellites were now also under threat.
The test clearly demonstrates that Russia “despite its statements about opposing the deployment of weapons in outer space, its reckless and irresponsible behavior, it is ready … to threaten the exploration and use of outer space by all countries,” – said in a statement Blinken.
Late Monday, Russia did not comment on the missile strike.
Once the threat became apparent early Monday morning, four Americans, one German and two Russians on board were ordered to immediately take refuge in their docked capsules. They spent two hours in two capsules, finally getting out to close and reopen hatches in the station’s individual laboratories in each orbit, or an hour and a half as they passed by or through the debris.
By the end of the day, only the hatches to the central core of the station remained open, as the crew slept, Nelson said.
Even a smudge of paint can cause serious damage in orbit at 17,500 mph (28,000 km / h). Anything large on impact could have disastrous consequences.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States has repeatedly expressed concerns to Russia about testing the satellite.
“We are going to continue to make it clear that we will not tolerate this kind of activity,” he told reporters.
NASA Mission Control said the heightened threat could further impede astronauts from conducting scientific research and other work. Four of the seven crew members arrived at the orbital station on Thursday evening.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hey, who is in the middle of a one-year mission, called the day “a crazy but well-coordinated day,” and said goodnight to the Mission Control Center.
“It has certainly been a great way to bond as a team, starting from the very first day in space,” he said.
A similar test of weapons by China in 2007 also resulted in countless debris. One of these units threatened to approach the space station dangerously last week. Although this was later dismissed as a risk, NASA ordered the station to be relocated anyway.
Anti-satellite missiles were tested by the US in 2008 and India in 2019 at much lower altitudes, well below the space station at a distance of about 260 miles (420 kilometers).
The non-existent Russian satellite Cosmos 1408 was in orbit 40 miles (65 kilometers) higher.
Until Monday, US Space Command had already tracked about 20,000 pieces of space debris, including old and broken satellites from around the world.
Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said it would take days, if not weeks and months, to catalog the last debris and confirm their orbits. He said in an email that over time, the fragments would begin to spread due to atmospheric resistance and other forces.
The space station is particularly at risk because the test was conducted close to its orbit, McDowell said. But all objects in low Earth orbit, including China’s space station and even the Hubble Space Telescope, will be at “slightly increased risk” over the next few years, he said.
Earlier in the day, the Russian Space Agency reported via Twitter that the astronauts had been ordered to be accommodated in docked pods in case they needed to quickly escape. The agency reported that the crew returned to routine operations, and the commander of the space station, Russian Anton Shkaplerov, tweeted: “Friends, we are all right!”
But the debris cloud posed a threat in every passing orbit – or every half hour – and all robot activity by the US was suspended. German astronaut Mathias Maurer also had to find a safer place to sleep than a European laboratory.
NASA’s Nelson noted that the Russians and Americans have supported the space partnership for half a century, beginning with the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission in 1975.
“I don’t want this to be in jeopardy,” he told NWN, noting that both countries are needed for the space station. “You have to manage it together.”
NWN reporters Matthew Lee and Robert Burns in Washington contributed.