A Russian weapons test created more than 1,500 pieces of space junk that now threaten the seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station, according to US officials who called the attack reckless and irresponsible.
The State Department confirmed Monday that the debris was from an old Russian satellite destroyed by the missile.
“It goes without saying that I am outraged. This is unthinkable, ”NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press. “It is incredible that the Russian government did this test and threatened not only international astronauts, but their own cosmonauts who are on board the station,” as well as the three people on the Chinese space station.
Nelson said astronauts now face a risk four times higher than normal. And that relies on debris large enough to track, with hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces undetected, “any of which can do enormous damage if hit in the right place.”
Condemning Russia, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the satellites were now also in danger.
The test clearly shows that Russia “despite its claims to oppose the militarization of outer space, is willing to … jeopardize the exploration and use of outer space by all nations through its reckless behavior. and irresponsible, “Blinken said in a statement.
Russia had no immediate comment Monday night on the missile strike.
Once the threat became apparent Monday morning, the four Americans, a German and two Russians on board were ordered to immediately seek refuge in their docked capsules. They spent two hours in the two capsules, eventually emerging only to have to close and reopen the hatches of the station’s individual laboratories in each orbit, or an hour and a half, as they passed near or through the debris.
At the end of the day, only the hatches in the central core of the station remained open, while the crew slept, according to Nelson.
Even a patch of paint can cause significant damage when orbiting at 28,000 kph (17,500 mph). Something big, after impact, could be catastrophic.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States has repeatedly expressed concern with Russia about conducting a satellite test.
“We will continue to make it very clear that we will not tolerate this type of activity,” he told reporters.
NASA Mission Control said the biggest threat could continue to disrupt astronauts’ scientific research and other work. Four of the seven crew members arrived at the orbital post Thursday night.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who is halfway through a year-long mission, called it “a crazy but well-coordinated day” when he bid Mission Control good night.
“It was certainly a great way to bond as a team, starting with our first day of work in space,” he said.
A similar weapons test conducted by China in 2007 also resulted in countless debris. One of those pieces threatened to get dangerously close to the space station last week. While it was later dismissed as a risk, NASA had the station moved anyway.
Anti-satellite missile tests conducted by the US in 2008 and India in 2019 were conducted at much lower altitudes, well below the space station at about 260 miles (420 kilometers).
The defunct Russian satellite Cosmos 1408 orbited some 40 miles (65 kilometers) higher.
As of Monday, the US Space Command was already tracking some 20,000 pieces of space junk, including old and broken satellites from around the world.
Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said it will take days, if not weeks and months, to catalog the latest debris and confirm their orbits. The fragments will begin to spread out over time, due to atmospheric drag and other forces, he said in an email.
The space station is at especially high risk because the test occurred near 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 “somewhat higher risk” in the coming years, he noted.
Hours earlier, the Russian Space Agency said via Twitter that the astronauts were ordered to climb into their docked capsules, in case they had to make a quick getaway. The agency said the crew was back doing routine operations, and the space station commander, Russian Anton Shkaplerov, tweeted: “Folks, everything is normal with us!”
But the debris cloud posed a threat with every passing orbit, or every hour and a half, and all robotic activity on the American side was suspended. German astronaut Matthias Maurer also had to find a safer place to sleep than the European laboratory.
NASA’s Nelson noted that the Russians and the Americans have had a space partnership for half a century, dating back to the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.
“I don’t want it to be threatened,” he told the AP, noting that both countries are necessary for the space station. “They have to operate it together.”