On one particular day in 2021, astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS must have felt a pin-prick of fear and uncertainty. On November 15th of that year, Russia fired an anti-satellite missile at one of its own defunct military satellites, Tselina-D. The target weighed about 1,750 kg, and when the missile struck its target, the satellite exploded into a cloud of hazardous debris.
NASA woke the crew on the International Space Station in the middle of the night and told them to take precautions and prepare for a possible impact. The Chinese space station Tiangong was also in danger, and multiple countries and space agencies condemned Russia’s foolhardy behaviour.
Earlier this month, the Russian military conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, launching a PL19 Nudol interceptor missile at a now-defunct Soviet-era intelligence satellite, KOSMOS 1408. The impact obliterated the spacecraft, creating a debris field consisting of approximately 1500 pieces of trackable debris, and potentially hundreds of thousands of pieces that are too small to monitor with ground-based radar. In the aftermath of the test, the debris field crossed the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS) repeatedly, causing the crew to take emergency precautions and shelter in their descent capsules, ready for a quick return to Earth in the event that the station was hit.
While the station and its crew escaped without harm this time around, the November 15 test demonstrated far too clearly that ASATs pose a real danger to human life. They can also wreak havoc on the rest of Earth’s space infrastructure, like communications satellites and other orbital systems. Debris from an ASAT test remains in orbit long after the initial incident is over (the higher the orbit, the longer lasting the debris), and if humanity’s space infrastructure is to be sustainable, the era of ASATs must come to an end, and soon.
The United States and Russia/USSR have been adversaries for a long time. Their heated rivarly stretches back to the waning days of WW2, when the enormous Red Army was occupying large swathes of eastern Europe, and the allies recognized the inherent threat.
The Cold War followed, when the two nations aimed an absurd number of nuclear warheads at each other. Then came the Space Race, when both nations vied for the prestige of making it to the Moon.
The US won that race, but the rivalry didn’t cool down.
As long as human beings have been sending satellites into space, they have been contemplating ways to destroy them. In recent years, the technology behind anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons has progressed considerably. What’s more, the ability to launch and destroy them extends beyond the two traditional superpowers (the US and Russia) to include newcomers like India, China, and others.