Russian weapons test blamed on space junk threatening space station

A Russian weapons experiment has created more than 1,500 unimportant space objects that now threaten the seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station, according to US officials who described the strike as reckless and irresponsible.

On Monday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the debris was caused by an old Russian satellite destroyed by the missile.

“Needless to say, I’m angry. That’s unbelievable,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press. “It’s incredible that the Russian government would carry out this test and threaten not only the international cosmonauts, but their own cosmonauts aboard the station” as well The three people on the Chinese space station.

Now astronauts face four times greater risks than usual, Nelson said. That relies on debris large enough to track down, with hundreds of thousands of small pieces undetected – “any one can do serious damage if it hits the right spot.”

Condemning Russia, Foreign Minister Anthony Blinken said satellites were now in danger.

In a statement, Blinken said the test clearly shows that Russia “despite its claims to oppose the weaponization of outer space, it is ready … to jeopardize the exploration and use of outer space by all nations through its reckless and irresponsible behavior.”

There was no immediate comment from Russia late on Monday about the missile strike.

As soon as the threat became apparent early Monday morning, the four Americans, one German, and two Russians were ordered to immediately plead in their docked capsules. They spent two hours in the two capsules, and finally came out only to have to close and reopen the hatches for the station’s personnel laboratories at each orbit, or an hour and a half, as they passed near or through the wreckage.

By the end of the day, only hatches leading to the station’s core remained open as the crew slept, according to Nelson.

Even a slick of paint can do serious damage when spinning at 17,500 mph (28,000 km/h). Something big, upon impact, can be disastrous.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States had repeatedly raised concerns with Russia about conducting satellite testing.

“We will continue to make clear that we will not tolerate this type of activity,” he told reporters.

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 Thursday night.

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hey, who was in the middle of a year-long mission, described it as a “crazy but well-coordinated day” as he offered Mission Control a good night.

“It was definitely a great way to bond as a crew, starting with our first day in space,” he said.

A similar weapons test by China in 2007 also yielded countless debris. One of those pieces threatened to get dangerously close to the space station last week. While it was later dismissed as a hazard, NASA moved the station anyway.

Anti-satellite missile tests by the United States in 2008 and India in 2019 were conducted at much lower altitudes, well below the space station at a distance of 260 miles (420 kilometers).

The defunct Russian satellite Kosmos 1408 was orbiting at an altitude of about 40 miles (65 kilometers).

As of Monday, the US Space Command was already tracking about 20,000 pieces of space junk, including old and broken satellites, from around the world.

It will take days, if not weeks, and months to classify the latest plane wreckage and confirm its orbits, said Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He said in an email that the parts will begin to spread out over time, due to atmospheric drag and other forces.

McDowell said the space station is particularly at high risk because the testing took place close to its orbit. He noted that all objects in low Earth orbit – including the Chinese space station and even the Hubble Space Telescope – will be at “fairly improved danger” over the next few years.

Earlier in the day, the Russian Space Agency said via Twitter that astronauts have been ordered into their docked capsules, in case they have to take a quick vacation. The agency said the crew was back for routine operations, and Russian space station commander Anton Shkaplerov tweeted: “Friends, everything is normal with us!”

But the debris cloud posed a threat on every passing orbit — or every hour and a half — and all robotic activity on the American side was suspended. German astronaut Matthias Maurer also had to find a safer place to sleep than the European laboratory.

NASA’s Nelson noted that the Russians and Americans have had a space partnership for half a century — back to the joint Apollo Soyuz mission in 1975.

“I don’t want to be threatened,” he told the Associated Press, noting that both countries are wanted for the space station. “You have to play it together.”

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