Russia tested an anti-satellite missile by obliterating one of its old satellites on November 15, sparking global outrage and forcing seven astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS) to shelter in their transport spacecraft as the debris field passed.
In the test, Russia launched what’s thought to be an A-235 Nudol ground-launched ASAT against Kosmos 1408, an elderly electronic intelligence gathering satellite launched in 1982. Although this system has been tested previously, this was the first time it has been used in an actual kill test.
It apparently worked as advertised, striking Kosmos 1408 at an altitude around 500 kilometres in low earth orbit, creating a debris field of around 1,500 trackable fragments on an orbital trajectory just above the ISS. There are likely to be many more fragments too small to track.
LeoLabs Australia has been monitoring and tracking the debris field and its proximity to the ISS and other objects in nearby orbit.
This highlights the ever-growing need for space domain awareness (SDA).
Australia is developing a growing expertise through existing facilities such as space telescopes in WA and ACT and emerging capabilities such as the Hensoldt Southern Guardian SDA System and proposed new LeoLabs space radar in WA.
Russia has yet to admit liability for the test, but the satellite destruction test was confirmed by US Space Command which pointed out that this debris would remain in orbit for years and potentially decades.
Condemnation was swift. “We condemn Russia’s reckless test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile against its own satellite, creating space debris that risks astronauts’ lives, the integrity of the ISS and the interests of all nations,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
In Australia, Monash University School of Physics and Astronomy Associate Professor Michael Brown said this was a reckless act. “It has generated over a thousand pieces of debris, which have the potential to collide at thousands of kilometres per hour with operational satellites, including the international and Chinese crewed space stations,” he said.
LeoLabs Australia director Terry van Haren said this was the most irresponsible action 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 are setting up – 520 kilometres for Starlink. What were they thinking?
“LeoLabs is monitoring the situation in real-time and is starting to detect and track the debris field with each pass the debris makes over its radars,” van Haren added. “On the last pass over our Costa Rica Space Radar, well north of 100 new objects were detected with altitudes ranging from 440-520km. The objects will pass over our radars 3-4 times per day and with each pass, the number of objects being tracked will likely grow.
“Over the next few weeks we will be able to establish high fidelity tracking on this debris, which will help provide vital space surveillance for secure and safe operations in space.”