Apr 2, 2019

India's anti-satellite test put the Space Station at risk, NASA says

NASA astronaut Nick Hague works outside the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Last month's test of an Indian anti-satellite missile system (ASAT) put the International Space Station at increased risk of an orbital debris strike, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine warned on Tuesday during congressional testimony.

The big picture: India's ASAT test on March 27 created hundreds of pieces of debris when the ground-launched missile blew the Microsat-R satellite apart. India hailed the test as a technological and defense achievement, but Bridenstine says that it made human spaceflight less safe by creating dangerous space junk. Bridenstine told members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that he dispatched a letter to India's space agency to inform them that their test wasn't "compatible" with human activities in space.

Details: According to Bridenstine, at least 24 pieces of trackable debris from the Indian missile test are in a part of space that's above the highest point in the Space Station's orbit, leaving the $100 billion space laboratory at increased risk of a debris strike and giving us a glimpse of our spacefaring future if countries continue to develop anti-satellite weaponry tests.

  • According to NASA, the ISS is at a 44% greater risk of a debris strike over a 10-day period following the test.

"That is a terrible, terrible thing, to create an event that sends debris in an apogee that goes above the International Space Station, and that kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight," Bridenstine said during a NASA town hall on Monday.

  • Bridenstine also stressed that the six people living and working aboard the space station were never in any immediate danger after the test.
  • "While the risk went up 44%, our astronauts are still safe. The International Space Station is still safe. If we need to maneuver it, we will. The probability of that, I think, is low," Bridenstine said.

What they're (not) saying: While Bridenstine was outspoken in his response to the test, both within his agency and beyond, other members of the Trump administration have been relatively muted.

Secure World Foundation space policy expert Brian Weeden told Axios that orbital debris isn't the biggest problem with India's demonstration of its new capability.

"The real problem is the continuing silence from the U.S. and other governments about this test. That suggests an emerging norm that it's OK to destroy a satellite, as long as you try and minimize the orbital debris. That's not great for the future of space sustainability or things that rely on it, such as human spaceflight or commercial investment in space."
— Brian Weeden, space policy expert at the Secure World Foundation

The bottom line: This isn't just about the ISS. Anti-satellite missile tests like the one launched by India compound the existing space junk problem by making more of it. In addition, the threat other nations pose to American defense satellites is one of the Trump administration's stated rationales for forming the new Space Force.

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