Nov 16, 2021 - Science

Russian anti-satellite test reveals dangers of space junk

Illustration of a satellite blocking the view of many asteroids in the background
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A Russian anti-satellite weapon test this week demonstrated just how extreme the space junk threat is in orbit today.

Why it matters: As space gets more crowded, events like a missile destroying a satellite, an explosion of a defunct spacecraft or a satellite-to-satellite attack could create debris that disrupts communications and endangers people in space.

Driving the news: The U.S. confirmed on Monday that Russia destroyed one of its own satellites in orbit using a weapon launched from the ground.

  • The weapon test produced thousands of pieces of trackable debris and hundreds of thousands of smaller, untraceable pieces that now put the International Space Station at greater risk, according to the Department of State.
  • Astronauts and cosmonauts on the space station had to shelter from a cloud of debris created by the test early on Monday, NASA confirmed.
  • "They produced a crapload of debris and now we all have to live with it," Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Axios.

How it works: Debris can travel at more than 17,000 miles per hour in orbit and can punch holes in spacecraft or destroy functional satellites.

  • Tests like the one by Russia create clouds of debris that can stay in orbit for years or decades.

Context: Russia has tested direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles as recently as last year.

  • Other countries — including the U.S. — have successfully used similar weapons in destructive tests.
  • Russia last year also conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based weapon that could use a projectile to impact other satellites.

Russia's motivations for this test aren't known.

  • It's possible the nation — which is, by many accounts, past its glory days in space — could have simply been trying to get some attention for its abilities in space, Harrison said.
  • "It could also reflect a certain degree of insecurity on the part of the Russians," Harrison added. "Maybe they're insecure in their technology and they needed to prove to themselves that they could still do this."

What to watch: Experts think it's possible this test could help spur action to create "norms of behavior" for countries operating in space and establish consequences for debris-creating tests to deter irresponsible actions in orbit.

  • "The U.S. has been raising the alarm bells about fears of weaponization in open space. The question is, 'What has the U.S. done about it?'" Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden told Axios.
  • It will take weeks, if not months, to catalogue and track all of the objects created during the test, putting other satellites at increased threat.

The big picture: More traffic in orbit may catalyze competition for strategic orbits and drive more countries to develop or seek out anti-satellite weapons, which would increase the risk of a destructive event occurring.

  • Security experts doubt the effectiveness of such weapons, as their use is dangerous not just for the target but for any space-faring entity — including the actor that launched the attack.
  • Countries may therefore pursue less destructive and more discreet weapons that use electromagnetic pulses, lasers and microwaves to temporarily disable or blind target satellites.

Go deeper: Yes, there really is a lot of space junk (Axios)

Go deeper