Debris from Russian anti-sat test just misses Chinese satellite

A Chinese satellite was almost destroyed on January 18th when a piece of debris from Russia’s November 15th anti-satellite test zipped past at a distance of less than a few hundred yards.

Expect more such events in the coming years.

This quote from the article I found somewhat ironic:

In an article from Beijing tabloid Global Times Jan. 20, cited experts stated that further close encounters cannot be ruled out. “Currently, they keep a safe distance but the chance for these two getting close in the future cannot be excluded,” said space debris expert Liu Jing.

Aerospace commentator Huang Zhicheng, told the publication that the growing issue of space debris should be addressed, including through international legal mechanisms. “It is not only necessary to conduct research on experimental devices or spacecraft to remove space debris, but also to formulate corresponding international laws and regulations on the generation of space debris under the framework of the UN,” Huang said. [emphasis mine]

Since anything published in the Chinese press must be approved by the Chinese government, this statement is essentially what the Chinese government wants said. For China however to demand other nations obey international law and not create more space junk that threatens others is hilarious, considering that China this year will likely launch two rockets whose core stages will crash to Earth uncontrolled, in direct violation of the Outer Space Treaty that China is a signatory to.

Since China doesn’t obey the treaties it signs, why should it expect others to do the same?

NASA: Russian anti-satellite test in November doubled the threat to ISS

According to a presentation by a NASA official at a conference today, further tracking of the debris from the Russian anti-satellite test on November 15, 2021 suggests that it has doubled the overall chance of a debris collision with ISS.

NASA ISS Program Director Robyn Gatens told a NASA advisory committee today that the November 15, 2021 Russian ASAT test forced the Expedition 66 crew to implement safe haven procedures, closing hatches to parts of the ISS and sheltering in the Soyuz and Crew Dragon spacecraft that could return them to Earth if worse came to worse.

Russia denied the test imperiled the crew, but Gatens said the threat of a piece of debris penetrating the ISS now has doubled to one chance in 25,000-33,000 orbits, versus one in 50,000 orbits prior to the test. The ISS does about 6,000 orbits a year.

It should be noted that, according to these numbers, the overall threat seems quite manageable. Nonetheless, the Russian anti-sat test was entirely irresponsible, especially because it targeted a defunct satellite in an orbit slightly higher than ISS, which means its debris will over time move into ISS’s orbit. The test also violated the Outer Space Treaty, which Russia has signed, which requires all signatories to control what they do in space so that it does not threaten either the persons or property of anyone else.

Debris from Russian anti-satellite test threatens more than ISS

According to an analysis by a commercial space tracking firm, the debris from the satellite destroyed during a Russian anti-satellite test in November threatens not just ISS but many military weather and spy satellites.

Hugh Lewis, head of the Astronautics Research Group at the UK’s University of Southampton, on Monday tweeted an analysis of predicted conjunctions, or close approaches, between satellites and the Cosmos 1408 debris for the first week of January. That analysis showed 8,917 likely conjunctions where a sat and a debris fragment would pass within five kilometers of each other — scarily close in terms of collision risk.

The COMSPOC analysis also shows that Russian government claims that the debris would not harm the International Space Station are blatantly not true. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case.

At the time of ASAT test, COMSPOC listed the ISS as 20th on the list of most imperiled spacecraft. But the analysis shows that risks of a catastrophic collision with the ISS will continue to grow as the debris pieces spiral downward from the impact point into the Earth’s atmosphere, Oltrogge said.

More and more it seems this Russian anti-sat test was a deliberate act of sabotage by the Putin government, aimed at harming U.S. assets.

Astronauts successfully complete spacewalk, replace broken antenna

After a two day delay caused by the danger of impact from debris from the Russian anti-sat test, two astronauts today successfully completed a six-hour-plus spacewalk to replace a malfunctioning antenna on ISS.

NASA astronauts Thomas Marshburn and Kayla Barron concluded the first Expedition 66 spacewalk at 12:47 p.m. EST, after 6 hours and 32 minutes. Marshburn and Barron successfully installed an S-band Antenna Subassembly (SASA) on the Port-1 truss structure and stowed the failed antenna. Additionally, the pair completed get-ahead tasks on the Port-4 truss structure, including resetting the torque on a set of bolts.

This was the fifth spacewalk for Marshburn, the first for Barron, and the 13th spacewalk at the International Space Station this year. Marshburn has now spent a total of 31 hours and one minute spacewalking, and Barron’s spacewalking time is now 6 hours and 32 minutes. Space station crew members have now spent a total of 64 days, 12 hours, and 26 minutes working outside the station conducting 245 spacewalks in support of assembly and maintenance of the orbiting laboratory.

It is unclear if any debris that canceled the spacewalk earlier in the week ever came close to the station. It is just as likely that NASA was overly cautious.

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.

Russia confirms and defends anti-satellite test

Russia today confirmed that it had done the anti-satellite missile test earlier this week that destroyed one of its defunct satellites and produced a cloud of space junk.

Russia’s Ministry of Defence also issued a Russian-language statement defending the test. The minister-general of the army, Sergei Shoigu, said that the test was successful and that “the resulting fragments do not pose any threat to space activities,” according to a machine-generated translation to English.

The U.S. State Department said Monday that the test created a cloud of space debris made up of over 15,000 objects, calling it a threat to astronauts and cosmonauts, and space activities of all countries. The debris could pose a threat for years to come, experts have said. The space station’s crew had to shelter in their return ships on Monday when the debris cloud was first detected.

Russia’s space agency Roscosmos wrote on Twitter Monday that the space debris cloud “has moved away from the ISS orbit”, which is roughly 250 miles (400 km) above Earth. The space debris tracker LeoLabs estimates the debris cloud is at 273 to 323 miles (440 to 520 km) in altitude. However, “the station is in the green zone,” Roscosmos added.

The Russian claim that the debris at present poses no threat to ISS could very well be true. The trouble is that it appeared to have posed a threat initially, and will likely be a problem in the future. As a signatory of the Outer Space Treaty, Russia was required to avoid such a situation, and chose not to.

The article at the link notes similar tests by China (2007), the U.S. (2008), and India (2019). Of all these anti-satellite tests, only the U.S. targeted a satellite in an orbit so low that the debris posed no threat to operating satellites or manned spacecraft, and was also quickly pulled Earthward to burn up in the atmosphere. India chose a higher satellite whose debris posed less threat, but took longer to burn up and was initially of some concern.

China and Russia could have done the same thing. They did not, and their irresponsibility has badly worsened a problem that already was considered a serious concern.

China begins in-orbit test of what it claims is a “space debris mitigation” satellite

The Space Force has now detected a second object flying next to a recently launched Chinese satellite that China claims will do an in-orbit test of a “space debris mitigation” system.

On Nov. 3 U.S. Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron (SPCS) catalogued a new object alongside Shijian-21 with the international designator 2021-094C. The object is noted as a rocket body and more precisely an apogee kick motor (AKM), used in some launches for a satellite to circularize and lower the inclination of its transfer orbit and enter geostationary orbit.

Apogee kick motors usually perform a final maneuver after satellite separation so as to not pose a threat to active satellites through risk of collision. However both Shijian-21 and the SJ-21 AKM are side by side in geostationary orbit.

The close proximity of the two objects strongly suggests Chinese engineers plan to use the satellite in some manner to capture the AKM in order to de-orbit it.

While China is likely testing methods for capturing and removing space debris, using this AKM, it could also be testing military technologies, such the ability to snatch working satellites it does not own from orbit. The lack of transparency can only make everyone suspicious.

The anti-satellite missile the Soviet Union designed for one of its early space stations

Link here. Apparently a prototype was actually flown in 1975 on the second successful Soviet space station, Salyut 3, a military mission. A more sophisticated version was never flown when the Soviet’s cancelled their military space station program. However, its design was most fascinating:

[L]ittle is known about the specifications and operation of the system, but, according to the Head of Science and Research Center at NPO Mashinostroenia Leonard Smirichevsky, who introduced the weapon, the vehicle’s grenade-like solid propellant charges doubled as engines!’s 3D recreation of the displayed variant established that it held 96 casings with solid propellant arranged in a globular fashion like the petals of a dandelion around a central combustion chamber. Upon their ignition, the chambers/grenades might have fed hot propulsive gas into a single or multiple combustion chambers at the center of the contraption, producing either the main thrust and/or steering the vehicle. When the missile reached the proximity of the target, according to its guiding radar, the entire vehicle would explode and the small solid chambers would eject under their own propulsive force in every direction acting as shrapnel.

The missile had a flight range of about 70 miles, and was designed to destroy any hostile satellite or spacecraft that approached the military station.

Russians say ISS threatened by debris from India’s anti-satellite test

According to one Russian official, data from the U.S. Air Force suggests that ISS now faces an increased risk from the debris produced from India’s anti-satellite test in March.

The probability that debris from an Indian satellite shot down earlier may puncture the International Space Station (ISS) has risen by 5%, Executive Director of Russia’s State Space Corporation Roscosmos for Manned Space Programs Sergei Krikalyov said on Wednesday.

“The Americans have carried out calculations on the probability of the station getting punctured because of more debris surfacing and being dispersed. There are numerical estimates raising the probability of a puncture by about 5%,” Krikalyov said at a session of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Council.

It is unclear what this means, since Krikalyov did not say what the estimated overall risk is now thought to be. Increasing a 1% risk by 5% is far less significant that increasing a 10% risk by 5%. In fact, without knowing what the overall risk is, this story is practically meaningless, and instead suggests there are political reasons for making this statement.