Russian officials on Tuesday rejected accusations that they endangered astronauts aboard the International Space Station by conducting a weapons test that resulted in more than 1,500 pieces of space junk.
US officials accused Russia on Monday of destroying an old satellite with a missile in what they called a reckless and irresponsible strike. They said the debris could damage the space station, an assessment endorsed by the NATO Secretary General.
Astronauts now face a risk four times greater than normal from space junk, NASA administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press. The defunct Russian satellite Kosmos 1408 was orbiting about 65 kilometers above the space station.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the test clearly shows that Russia, “despite its claims of opposition to the weaponization of outer space, is prepared … to jeopardize the exploration and use of outer space by all nations through its reckless and irresponsible behavior.”
Russia condemns ‘hypocrisy’
The Russian space agency Roscosmos neither confirmed nor denied the strike, saying only that “the unconditional safety of the crew has been and remains our main priority,” in a statement on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the testing and destruction of a satellite that had been in orbit since 1982, but insisted that “the United States knows for certain that the resulting fragments, in terms of test time and orbital parameters, did not and will not and will not constitute a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft, and space activities.”
She described the statements of US officials as “hypocrisy”.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the strike was carried out with “surgical precision” and posed no threat to the space station. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said it was “hypocritical” to say that Russia creates risks for peaceful activities in space.
As soon as the situation became clear early Monday morning, those aboard the International Space Station – four Americans, one German and two Russians – were ordered to seek shelter immediately in their docked capsules. They spent two hours in the two capsules, and finally appeared only to have to close and reopen the hatches at the individual station labs on each orbit, or every hour and a half, as they passed near or through space debris.
Even a spot of paint can do serious damage when spinning at 28,000 km/h. Something big, upon impact, can be disastrous.
‘Misery’: the head of NATO
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg agreed that Russia’s actions endanger the space station.
“This was a reckless act by Russia to shoot down and destroy a satellite as part of a test of an anti-satellite weapons system,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels, causing a lot of space debris.
This is an additional concern, he said, “because it shows that Russia is now developing new weapons systems that can shoot down satellites, and can destroy critical space capabilities of basic infrastructure on Earth, such as communications, such as navigation, or such as early warning of missile launches.”
NASA mission control said the growing threat could continue to interrupt astronauts’ scientific research and other work. Four of the seven crew members arrived at the orbital position only Thursday night.
A similar weapons test conducted by China in 2007 also yielded countless pieces of debris. One of those who threatened to get dangerously close to the space station last week. While the danger it posed was later dismissed, NASA moved the space station anyway.
Anti-satellite missile tests by the United States in 2008 and India in 2019 were conducted at much lower altitudes, much lower than the space station orbiting at an altitude of 420 kilometers.