Explained | Russian ASAT test and its implications

It drew sharp reactions from US officials who also said it endangered the International Space Station

Updated - November 18, 2021 08:12 am IST

Published - November 16, 2021 06:19 pm IST

The International Space Station (ISS) photographed by Expedition 56 crew members in 2018. File

The International Space Station (ISS) photographed by Expedition 56 crew members in 2018. File

Russia has carried out an Direct-Ascent Anti-Satellite (DA-ASAT) test by shooting down an old satellite on Monday which has created a huge debris in the low earth orbit, according to the U.S. space command. It drew sharp reactions from US officials who also said it endangered the International Space Station (ISS).

What is the test and its significance?

According to the US space command, Russia has conducted the DA-ASAT test to shoot down an old Soviet Tselina-D SIGINT satellite, Kosmos-1408, which was launched in 1982 and had been dead for a long time. “The test so far has generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris,” it said in a statement.

While Russia has previously tested ASAT weapons, the DA-ASAT is more advanced and similar to the ones the US has in its inventory, according to observers.

ASAT weapon gives the capability to destroy satellites in orbit disrupting the communications and surveillance capabilities of adversaries. Only a handful of countries have successfully demonstrated ASAT capability - China, India, Russia and U.S.

What is the assessment and the reaction?

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 International Space Station, and the interests of all nations, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on social media.

“The debris created by Russia's DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers. Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible,” said U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, U.S. Space Command commander.

Russia is developing and deploying capabilities to actively deny access to and use of space by the United States and its allies and partners, Gen Dickinson added.

Initial assessment by USSPACECOM is that the debris will remain in orbit for years and potentially for decades, posing a significant risk to the crew on the International Space Station and other human spaceflight activities, as well as multiple countries' satellites.

USSPACECOM continues to monitor the trajectory of the debris and will work to ensure all space-faring nations have the information necessary to safeguard their on-orbit activities if impacted by the debris cloud, a service the United States provides to the world, to include Russia and China, it added.

In a sharp reaction, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said "Russia's claims of opposing the weapons and weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical."

What is the threat to the International Space Station?

Due to the debris generated by the “destructive” Russian test, ISS astronauts and cosmonauts undertook emergency procedures for safety, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “The crew was awakened and directed to close the hatches to radial modules on the station... Hatches between the U.S. and Russian segments remain open,” he said.

There are currently seven astronauts on the ISS.

The crew was “awakened and directed to close the hatches to radial modules” on the station while hatches between the U.S. and Russian segments remain open.

Stating that an additional precautionary measure of sheltering the crew was executed for two passes through or near the vicinity of the debris cloud, Mr. Nelson said the space station is passing through or near the cloud (debris) every 90 minutes, but the need to shelter for only the second and third passes of the event was based on a risk assessment made by the debris office and ballistics specialists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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, Mr. Nelson said adding, “Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board.”

“Friends, everything is regular with us! We continue to work according to the program,” Russian Astronaut Anton Shkaplerov currently on the ISS tweeted on Monday morning.

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