Although it will likely require weeks of careful observations before scientists have enough tracking data to fully map the debris cloud from the destruction of the Cosmos 1408 satellite, the early returns are distressing.
An array of government entities and private companies, as well as university scientists, have been collecting and analyzing data since Monday morning, when a Russian Nudol missile struck a two-ton satellite in low Earth orbit. The aging Russian satellite was at an altitude of about 480 km, amidst a fairly congested environment of commercial and government satellites.
The kinetic blast appears to have sent debris from the satellite across a broad range of altitudes. Based upon initial data, a space situational awareness firm named SpaceNav calculated that some of the largest pieces of debris have already reached altitudes from as high as 1,100 km and as low as 300 km above the Earth.
Much of the debris was evidently showered into an altitude of 400 to 450 km, which would appear to justify the caution exercised by NASA’s Mission Control at Johnson Space Center on Monday morning, when astronauts were told to shelter inside their Crew Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft during two initial passes through the debris cloud.
Given the widely varying altitude of the debris, some of it will take a long time to return to Earth. Hugh Lewis, a space debris expert at the University of Southampton in England, performed some preliminary calculations and found that, while about half of the debris from the satellite’s destruction will reenter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up within about a year, some detritus will linger for 10 or 15 years, if not longer.
A data aggregation company, Slingshot Aerospace, and space technology company Numerica also released the first images of the aftermath of the collision. The images show debris rapidly moving away from a point of origin within a few hours of the impact. Some of the larger pieces also appear to be breaking apart in the process.
“This was clearly a reckless event,” said Melanie Stricklan, co-founder and chief executive of Slingshot Aerospace, in an interview with Ars. “We took a major step backward on Monday.”
Stricklan said the debris has the potential to cross a wide range of orbits from below 400 km up to 1,000 km, where there are not just large government assets such as the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong space station, but also growing commercial constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink satellites at 550 km.
She also expressed concern about an escalation in the demonstration of space-based war-fighting capabilities as a result of this test. “I thought we were past the contests, but this escalation could turn to a cycle that leads other countries to do this kind of testing,” she said.
US Space Command has not made any public statements on the test since Monday, when it said Russia’s efforts were undermining the “strategic stability” of space and threaten national interests.
On Tuesday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he spoke with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin, about the Cosmos 1408 incident. Nelson said he expressed dismay about the Russian test and added that “it’s critical that we ensure the safety of our people and assets in space—now and into the future.” It seems unlikely that the test, and subsequent threat to the International Space Station, will have any immediate consequences for the US-Russian relationship in civil spaceflight.
Also on Tuesday, the Secure World Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving a safe space environment, noted that other countries have conducted anti-satellite tests in recent years. It called for this destructive testing and capabilities demonstration to end.
“We call upon the United States, Russia, China, and India to declare unilateral moratoriums on further testing of their antisatellite weapons that could create additional orbital debris and to work with other countries towards solidifying an international ban on destructive ASAT testing,” the statement read. “The continued testing or demonstration of antisatellite capabilities, including the targeting of one’s own space objects, is an unsustainable, irresponsible, and destabilizing activity in space in which no responsible spacefaring state should engage.”
Listing image by Slingshot Aerospace
Source: Ars Technica