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modeling of impact
A simulation of the intercept of the Cosmos 1408 satellite by a Russian ASAT missile in the November 15 test. (credit: COMSPOC)

After another ASAT test, will governments finally take action?

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On November 12, a group of companies and organizations announced an initiative to address the growing population of satellites and debris in orbit, unaware that their efforts were just days away from being undone.

“At a political level, that we need to take a step into space regulations and to start thinking, at a national scale, we should start having requirements to avoid space debris creation,” Barbier said days before the ASAT test.

The Net Zero Space initiative, sponsored by the Paris Peace Forum, hoped to build public and political awareness about orbital debris and encourage binding national measures to mitigate the creation of new debris and support efforts to remove existing debris. (The name “net zero,” organizers said, was not meant to be taken literally but instead an effort to tie it to initiatives for the net-zero emission of greenhouse gases.)

“This initiative is being done for two reasons. First of all, to raise awareness in the larger public beyond the space community,” said Jérôme Barbier, head of outer space, digital and economic issues for the Paris Peace Forum, in an interview. “And, at a political level, that we need to take a step into space regulations and to start thinking, at a national scale, we should start having requirements to avoid space debris creation.”

The initiative had 11 companies and organizations, ranging from launch services provider Arianespace to satellite operators Eutelsat and Planet to the French space agency CNES and the International Institute of Air and Space Law. All those organizations, as part of signing on to the initiative, agreed to make concrete steps to mitigate the growth of orbital debris over the next two years. “The idea for this precise support is to be able to verify it,” Barbier said.

At the time of the announcement, the biggest issue was the lack of any megaconstellation companies, like Amazon, OneWeb, and SpaceX, among the signatories. During a panel discussion at the Paris Peace Forum’s annual conference where the initiative was announced, Michel Azibert, deputy chief executive of Eutelsat, said that while his company is a major shareholder in OneWeb, its participation in the initiative did not extend to OneWeb.

However, he expressed optimism that OneWeb would later join the initiative, based on past efforts by the company supporting space sustainability. “I have no doubt that they will join us and that they will sign the declaration in the next few weeks or months,” he said.

Less than 72 hours after that announcement, though, a missile, likely one called Nudol, launched from the vicinity of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. Such missiles, developed as direct-ascent antisatellite (ASAT) weapons, had been launched before. However, this one hit Cosmos 1408, a long-defunct electronic signals intelligence satellite launched in 1982 and was, at the time, in an orbit about 485 kilometers high.

“I’m outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action,” Nelson said.

The first public sign that something happened was on the International Space Station, when controllers awakened the crew earlier than usual and warned of a “debris cloud” that posed a threat to the station. Close approaches of debris are not unusual: earlier in the month, station managers approved plans to adjust the station’s orbit because of a projected close approach by a piece of debris from China’s 2007 ASAT test. (The debris later turned out not to be a threat, but NASA went ahead with the maneuver in place of a previously planned debris test.) However, rarely are ISS crews warned of debris “clouds” that come by every orbit.

“Our next pass through the debris we estimate to be around 0706 [GMT],” NASA Mission Control in Houston informed the crew early November 15. “The information we have right now indicates that we will need to activate Dragon safe haven and close centerline hatches for the next two crossings.” Astronauts spent a couple hours huddled in their Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft as a precaution of a debris impact.

It was only later in the day did it become clear the debris that forced astronauts to shelter in their spacecraft was created hours earlier by an ASAT test. “The Russian Federation recklessly conducted a destructive satellite test of a direct-ascent antisatellite missile against one of its own satellites,” Ned Price, State Department spokesman, said at a briefing. “The test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations.”

A few hours later, NASA administrator Bill Nelson chimed in. “Earlier today, due to the debris generated by the destructive Russian antisatellite (ASAT) test, ISS astronauts and cosmonauts undertook emergency procedures for safety,” he said. “Like Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken, I’m outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action.”

Nelson suggested that Roscosmos was as unaware of the planned ASAT test as anyone. “With its long and storied history in human spaceflight, it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts.”

Nelson and his Roscosmos counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin, talked the next day. “Spoke with Roscosmos DG [director general] @Rogozin expressing dismay over the danger our astronauts and cosmonauts continue to face on the International Space Station,” Nelson tweeted after the call. “It’s critical that we ensure the safety of our people and assets in space – now and into the future.”

“The Cosmos 1408 breakup event likely created more debris than Russia anticipated, yet less debris than the rest of the world thought, since we initially assumed a hypervelocity impact, as was the case in previous catastrophic collisions,” LeoLabs concluded.

Russia acknowledged the test November 16 but claimed that the debris it created does not pose a threat to the ISS or other satellites. Tracking data suggests otherwise: data collected by companies like LeoLabs, which operates several radars around the world to provide commercial tracking of satellites and debris, found that the test threw debris into both lower and higher orbits. Some objects are now in orbits with apogees above 1,400 kilometers, posing a threat to many satellites, and others have perigees at or below the ISS.

Exactly how much debris is in orbit is uncertain. When US Space Command announced the test November 15, they said they were tracking more than 1,500 objects, with likely a far larger number of smaller objects too small to track. Many others have quoted that number or even larger ones: at a briefing Friday, ESA director general Josef Aschbacher said about 2,000 objects were created by the test, tripling the risk of a collision with the ISS.

Space Command has not provided an updated figure since that announcement. “We are still characterizing this event that happened on Monday,” Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of Space Command, said in a video appearance at a session of the AIAA’s ASCEND conference in Las Vegas two days after the test. “It appears that this intercept on-orbit has at least more than 1,500 pieces of trackable debris. We expect that number to grow over time. That debris cloud will begin to disperse.”

“It will become a threat that we will have to deal with,” he added.

However, LeoLabs, as of late last week, has tracked only about 250 to 300 objects. “Frankly, we expected to see many more fragments by now,” they wrote November 20. That’s because Cosmos 1408 was relatively large, with a mass of about 2,220 kilograms, significantly larger than the Fengyun-1C satellite destroyed in the Chinese ASAT test in 2007.

LeoLabs speculates that the collision was not, as originally expected, a “hypervelocity” impact, defined as one with an impact speed of more than six kilometers per second. Hypervelocity collisions completely fragment satellites, as was the case with the Chinese test, creating a large amount of debris.

Instead, the company speculates, the Nudol mission may have approached Cosmos 1408 from behind, deliberately attempting a low-velocity collision. That would, they argue, explain the distribution and amount of debris, and also Russian officials’ claims that the test did not pose a hazard to other objects.

“The Cosmos 1408 breakup event likely created more debris than Russia anticipated, yet less debris than the rest of the world thought, since we initially assumed a hypervelocity impact, as was the case in previous catastrophic collisions,” they concluded (emphasis in original).

Still, as LeoLabs notes, the test has created at least several hundred pieces of debris: “the new debris still poses a threat to the LEO operating environment, and will for years and decades to come.”

“The antisatellite test that the Russians did is a huge mess,” said Gerstenmaier. “That was an overt act. That wasn’t an erroneous collision. That was a purposeful collision that created a huge mess for us.”

Left unanswered in this discussion, though, is why Russia performed the test, when they had been doing direct-ascent ASAT tests that did not target satellites. Was it, perhaps, a bit of saber-rattling amid growing tensions between Russia and the West, including rumors of a Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine?

“The test the Russians undertook on Monday is just a continuation of a program of counterspace capabilities by both China and Russia they are intending to put either on orbit or terrestrially to take out our capabilities,” Maj. Gen. Leah Lauderback, director of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance at the Space Force, said on the same ASCEND panel as Shaw.

“I can probably guess why it is the Russians would do this, from a deterrence perspective,” she continued. “Also, I think that this is again a continuation of their intent to degrade our capabilities or to deter us from using our space capabilities.”

By the end of the week, governments, organizations, and companies had all issued statements about the test, condemning it for its destabilizing effects, both geopolitical and for the space environment. A notable exception was China, whose foreign ministry said Tuesday it was “too early to make any comment” but hasn’t followed up since.

However, so far those condemnations have not been backed by action. At the State Department briefing last week, Price declined to comment on any specific measures the United States government or those of allies would take in response to the test, saying only that US officials had “spoken to senior Russian officials multiple times to warn them of the irresponsibility and dangerousness of such a test.”

The strong reaction to China’s ASAT test in 2007 had long thought to be a deterrent to future tests: China, after all, apparently chastened by the test, has refrained from destructive tests since then, even while continuing to develop ASAT capabilities. Other than the USA 193 test by the US in 2008—ostensibly to prevent a hydrazine-laden spacecraft from crashing to Earth, but also a demonstration of ASAT capabilities—more than a decade passed with another such test.

India, though, demonstrated an ASAT in 2019, creating debris that remained in orbit for many months despite deliberate efforts by India’s military to minimize long-lived debris creation by hitting a satellite in a low orbit. India largely escaped international consequences from that test, other than a very brief suspension of cooperation between NASA and ISRO on some projects.

And now we have the Russian ASAT test, which has the potential to be far more disruptive than the Indian test, and comes as a time when then number of operational satellites is growing rapidly as companies deploy constellations. This debris, going through the orbits used by those constellations, will affect their operations for years, not to mention the ISS, China’s space station, and human spaceflight programs.

But without consequences for that debris-producing act, there may be little to restrain Russia or China, or other nations, from performing more tests and increasing the hazard to satellites and crewed spacecraft in low Earth orbit. While efforts like the Net Zero Space initiative are well-intentioned, the time may be for governments to take more serious efforts to address the growth of orbital debris generally, and more specifically take steps to discourage ASAT tests like this in the future.

“The antisatellite test that the Russians did is a huge mess,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, the longtime head of NASA human spaceflight programs and current vice president at SpaceX, during a session of the ASCEND conference last week. “That was an overt act. That wasn’t an erroneous collision. That was a purposeful collision that created a huge mess for us. That’s the kind of stuff we need to focus governments on.”

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