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Europe joins U.S. in condemning Russian anti-satellite test

Europe’s top space policy chief today joined the U.S. in strongly condemning the Russian anti-satellite test that produced a cloud of several thousand pieces of orbiting space junk.

European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton condemned Russia’s anti-satellite missile system test, which led to the destruction of a satellite in low orbit.

“As European Union (EU) Commissioner in charge of EU Space policy and in particular of Galileo & Copernicus, I join the strongest condemnations expressed against the test conducted by Russia on Monday November 15, which led to the destruction of a satellite in low orbit (COSMOS 1408),” Breton wrote on Twitter late on Tuesday.

The Russians continue to insist the debris poses no threat to ISS, but their own state-run press proves them wrong. This TASS report claims the debris is no threat because it orbits 40 to 60 kilometers (25 to 35 miles) above the station.

That the debris is presently orbiting above the station is exactly why it poses a threat. While mission controllers will periodically raise ISS’s orbit to counteract the loss of altitude due to friction from the very thin atmosphere at that elevation, the various orbits of the satellite debris will continue to fall. Eventually that entire cloud will be drop into ISS’s orbit.

It is likely that the debris spread over time will make it easy for controllers to shift ISS to avoid individual pieces, but the need to dodge will certainly increase with time, raising the odds that something will hit the ISS.

The test seems almost so stupid an act by Russia that one wonders if its purpose was to create a long term threat to ISS itself. At least one private U.S. company, Axiom, plans to attach its own modules to ISS and use it as a base for the next few years for commercial operations. Others want to use ISS as a hotel for private tourists.

The Russians meanwhile are planning to launch their own new station. If the Russians put it in an orbit safe from this debris cloud, this test will have thus conveniently damaged their main competitor in commercial space operations.

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8 comments

  • mpthompson

    Is there some weird child-like psychology going on here whereby Russia realizes its own capabilities in space are dwindling, so it does what it can to deny others safe access to LEO? Or, is it simply they don’t care?

  • Skunk Bucket

    I know there are good reasons for the ISS to be at its present, rather low, altitude, among them the relative ease of reaching that orbit with crew and resupply missions, but if it came to that, would it make sense to move it above the debris cloud, if only until most of the pieces reenter?

  • Patrick Underwood

    Russian rationality is significantly different from the Western variety.

  • Max

    Other craft are at risk as well.
    “The ISS roams at an altitude of around 400 km (258 mi), while Tinagong will orbit between 340 and 450 km (210 and 280 mi) above the surface”

    The ISS is much larger and therefore a bigger target. I hope the Chinese space station is as maneuverable.

  • Jeff Wright

    I think Putin wants to raid Russian space budgets altogether- else he would done this AFTER an all Russian Station was there. He put his own men at risk…and I think he wants to abandon the old R-7 pads. See my comment in the UAE-sponsored pad deal in the previous article.

    We may have to drop sanctions

  • pawn

    What I would like to know but I’m sure I will never know is, who approved this? Someone had to have approved this. Soviets don’t do things by committee as we in the West understand it. It was a big project. Who the hell approved this crazy idea?

  • Edward

    Skunk Bucket asked: “… but if it came to that, would it make sense to move it above the debris cloud, if only until most of the pieces reenter?

    Moving the ISS large distances in altitude is not an easy task. Scott Manley recently made a video discussing ISS’s eventual deorbit and how difficult that will be, given the mass that needs to change just its perigee by several kilometers:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5lidnLtO7c (10 minutes)

    Raising the circular orbit will also take a lot of fuel, and in the meantime, it will travel through the debris field, which by then will be a ring around the planet. It will also make it even harder to deorbit ISS at the end of its life. However, if the number of pieces is large (one possibly biased report suggested 15,000) then it may make sense, at each opportunity, to keep boosting ISS higher than the debris ring.

  • Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.

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