What Happened in Russia’s Anti-Satellite Weapon Test, and What Are the Risks?
On November 15, 2021, US officials announced that a dangerous new debris field had been discovered in orbit near Earth.
Later in the day, it was confirmed that Russia had used an anti-satellite weapon to destroy one of its old satellites.
Wendy Whitman Cobb is an expert in space security.
She explains what these weapons are and why the debris they produce is a current and future problem.
What do we know so far?
Russia conducted an anti-satellite test that resulted in the destruction of one of its older satellites.
Thousands of pieces of debris in orbit, ranging in size from tiny specks to pieces a few feet across, were created when the satellite disintegrated.
This debris will remain in orbit for years, possibly colliding with other satellites and the International Space Station.
The crew of the space station has already had to take cover as they approached the debris cloud.
What is an Anti-Satellite Weapon, and how does it work?
Anti-satellite weapons, or ASATs, are any weapon that can disrupt or destroy an orbiting satellite.
A direct ascent kinetic anti-satellite weapon is the one that Russia recently tested.
These are usually launched from the ground or from the wings of an airplane and run into satellites at high speeds, destroying them.
Co-orbital anti-satellite weapons, for example, are launched into orbit before changing course to collide with the target satellite from space.
Non-kinetic anti-satellite weapons, for example, use laser technology to disrupt satellites without colliding with them.
Since the 1960s, space agencies have been developing and testing anti-satellite weapons.
To date, the United States, Russia, China, and India have demonstrated the ability to attack satellites in orbit that provide services such as GPS, communications, and weather forecasting.
What Causes Debris to Be a Problem?
Space debris is a serious problem, regardless of the cause.
Larger pieces are easier to track and avoid, but tracking pieces smaller than 4 inches (10 centimeters) is difficult.
Even small debris, however, can be dangerous.
Around the Earth, space debris frequently travels faster than 17,000 mph.
Pieces of debris traveling at that speed could destroy any spacecraft or satellite they collided with.
A suspected debris strike in the 1980s caused a Soviet satellite to break up.
The danger is even more concerning…
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