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Russia Makes Space Junk, Denies Danger to its Own Astronauts

Russia Makes Space Junk, Denies Danger to its Own Astronauts
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Video production: Nik Yarst

Sergey Shoigu

Sergey Shoigu

Russia’s defense minister

“We have actually successfully tested a promising system. It struck the old satellite with surgical precision. The resulting fragments do not pose any threat to space activities."


Russia’s Defense Ministry has confirmed that an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile was launched on November 15. The ASAT destroyed the Tselina-D, a defunct Russian spy satellite from 1982. This was Russia’s fourth space missile test and the first to hit its target.

On November 16, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu called the test a success and said the resulting debris was not a threat to other space vessels or astronauts.

“We have actually successfully tested a promising system,” Shoigu said. “It struck the old satellite with surgical precision. The resulting fragments do not pose any threat to space activities."

That is false.

U.S. officials said the destruction of Tselina-D formed a debris cloud of more than 1,500 pieces orbiting in threatening proximity to the International Space Station (ISS). Every 93 minutes, the ISS, orbiting at 261 miles above the Earth’s surface, crosses paths with the debris field, which is spread out at an altitude of 270-320 miles and traveling at 17,500 mph.

In the past, the ISS and NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, have had enough time to assess the threat from space junk and adjust the space station’s orbit to “dodge the debris.” This happened on November 10, when a Chinese ASAT test destroyed a weather satellite, forming a 3,500-piece debris cloud that nearly hit the ISS.

However, in the case of Russia’s ASAT strike, there was only a 15-minute interval between the time the debris cloud was detected and a possible collision – insufficient to assess the risk or change the orbit.

That happened for two reasons.

First, according to NASA, Russia did not give the U.S. advance notice of the test. Second, according to Seradata, a satellite tracking database, the explosion that destroyed the Tselina-D “blasted downwards,” sending debris “close enough” to the ISS “to be threatening.”

Because of the urgency of the situation, NASA’s Mission Control invoked a “safe haven” protocol, instructing the ISS’ seven crew members to shelter in escape pods and prepare for a possible emergency evacuation should the debris strike.

“Debris generated by the dangerous Russian ASAT test caused ISS astronauts and cosmonauts to undertake emergency procedures for safety. It's unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only intl partner astronauts on the ISS but also their own cosmonauts,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on Twitter.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Russia’s test.

“The events of November 15, 2021, clearly demonstrate that Russia, despite its claims of opposing the weaponization of outer space, is willing to jeopardize the long-term sustainability of outer space and imperil the exploration and use of outer space by all nations through its reckless and irresponsible behavior,” Blinken said.

European Commission Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said on November 17 that the Russian space missile test endangered EU’s space activities and “poses a major risk to our astronauts currently on the International Space Station and has triggered emergency procedures to protect them.”

“This anti-satellite weapon test has caused the generation of a significant amount of debris of a size that could endanger the European Union’s space activities as well as those of our member states,” Politico quoted Brenton as saying.

Cosmos magazine quoted Terry van Haren, director of the space company LeoLabs Australia, as saying: “This is the most irresponsible action we have seen in space for some years. It is probably at the worst altitude you could imagine, above the ISS at 420 km and just under where the mega-constellations (a network of satellites working together) are setting up [520km for Starlink]. What were they thinking?”