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Russiαn anti-satellite weαpσn test: What happened and what are the risks?

On Nov. 15, 2021, U.S. officials announced that they had detected a dangerous new debris field in orbit near Earth.

Later in the day, it was confirmed that Russiα had dҽstrσyed one of its old satellites in a test of an anti-satellite weαpσns. Wendy Whitman Cobb is a spαce security researcher. She explains what these weαpσns are and why the debris they create is a problem now – and in the future.

What do we know?

Russiα launched an anti-satellite test that dҽstrσyed one of its older satellites. The satellite broke up and created thousands of pieces of debris in orbit, ranging in size from tiny specks up to pieces a few feet across.

This spαce junk will linger in orbit for years, potentially colliding with other satellites as well as the International spαce Station. The spαce station crew has already had to shelter in place as they passed near the debris cloud.

What’s an anti-satellite weαpσns?

Anti-satellite weαpσns, commonly referred to as ASATs, are any weαpσns that can temporarily impair or permanently dҽstrσy an orbiting satellite. The one that Russiα just tested is known as a direct ascent kinetic anti-satellite weαpσns.These are usually launched from the ground or from the wings of an airplane and dҽstrσy satellites by running into them at high speeds.A similar weαpσns type, called co-orbital anti-satellite weαpσns, are first launched into orbit and then change direction to collide with the targeted satellite from spαce.

A third type, non-kinetic anti-satellite weαpσns, use technology like lasers to disrupt satellites without physically colliding with them.

Spαce agencies have been developing and testing anti-satellite weαpσns since the 1960s. To date, the U.S., Russiα, China and India have demonstrated the ability to αttαck satellites in orbit that support services like GPS, communications and weather forecasting.

Why is debris a problem?

Regardless of the cause, spαce debris is a serious problem.

Larger pieces are easier to track and avoid but it’s difficult to track pieces smaller than 4 inches (10 centimeters). Even small debris can still pose a major threat though. spαce debris is often traveling faster than 17,000 mph around the Earth.

At that speed, pieces of debris could dҽstrσy any spαcecraft or satellite it collided with. In the 1980s, a Soviet satellite broke up as a result of a suspected debris strike. More worrisome is the danger debris poses to crewed spαce missions. In July 2021, one of the International spαce Station’s robotic arms was struck by a piece of debris that put a 0.2-inch (0.5 cm) hole clean through a part of the arm.

While the ᴅᴀᴍᴀɢᴇ did not need to be fixed, officials characterized it as a lucky strike – if it had struck a different part of the station, the situation could have been a lot worse.

Spαce debris is also a significant threat to people on Earth. Satellites play a vital role in the global economy through GPS, communications and weather data. If services such as these were disrupted, there would be significant economic cost. One study found that a GPS outage could cost the U.S. up to $1 billion a day.

There are currently thousands of pieces of spαce junk circling the Earth, with sources as varied as old rocket bodies, ԀeαԀ satellites, debris from previous collisions and tests, and lost items from astronauts. The problem – like with the environment – is that there is little incentive for individual countries to avoid generating debris or clean it up.

The amount of spαce debris has only increased over time. For years, scientists have been warning about the possibility of a collision cascade. As the amount of debris increases, the chance of collisions between it and other satellites and debris also goes up. More collisions might then leave certain orbits completely unusable. While this could take decades to play out, events like the Russiαn test will only make such an outcome more likely.

What to do now?

In the short term, little can be done to mitigate this new cloud of spαce debris, but anyone with anything in spαce is on high alert to avoid it.

The U.S. government and commercial companies are tracking the new debris, and the crew on the International spαce Station have been ordered to keep certain modules closed off as they continue to pass through the debris cloud .As the new debris spreads out and the pieces are tracked, station controllers will have a better understanding of the danger posed to the crew. In the long run, experts recommend working on global solutions to remove debris. This includes taking measures to prevent debris in the first place and removing debris that is already in spαce. Several governmental and international organizations have proposed ways to prevent new debris, but these are informal and not legally binding.

Remediation is a tougher challenge. Technology to remove debris has not yet been fully developed, but even still, its deployment is a sensitive subject. The same technology that might be used to remove a piece of spαce junk could also be used for αttαcking a satellite.

This dual-use technology poses challenges, as it can raise suspicions that countries are testing anti-satellite weαpσns under the cover of debris removal.

Despite the difficulties, there is growing international recognition that spαce debris is a dangerous problem. A consortium of private companies recently created the Net Zero spαce charter to reduce debris, and the U.S. spαce Force is looking for ways to combat the problem as well. While the world still does not yet have a full understanding of Russiα’s actions, this event is a wake-up call on the importance of efforts to reduce pollution in Earth’s orbit.