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Russia’s missile test raises concerns about orbital debris cloud

The first is the appearance of unexplained space objects in New Zealand. Then there was debris in Costa Rica and Texas.

On Wednesday, California-based LeoLabs, which uses radar to track objects in space to prevent collisions, identified a total of 243 new debris orbiting Earth – all from one anti-satellite missile test which Russia had raised two days earlier, to widespread condemnation.

Daniel Ceperley, CEO and co-founder of LeoLabs said: “They have essentially put a bomb in the middle of a new space race, talking about the impact of the Russian test on the space sector. growing commerce, which is in the same Earth orbit as the new debris.

He added: “The primary altitude most of these satellites are using is right where this new debris was created.

In the coming weeks, scientists, investors and policymakers will monitor the spread of the debris cloud, which has forced Russian and American personnel on the International Space Station a few miles from Earth. 400km must cover the door on Monday.

The image shows how dangerously close the newly discovered unexplained debris is to the ISS orbit

It now threatens to affect hundreds of commercial satellites, including those of SpaceX and US imaging company Planet, and refocus on growing tensions between Russia and the US over the weaponization of space. increasingly escalating time.

“The bottom line is the Kremlin maybe Samuel Charap, Russia expert at Rand Corporation, said it likely delayed this and decided not to do so,” said Samuel Charap, Russia expert at Rand Corporation, noting that Russia conducted the test. The experiment could have been scheduled long ago in light of the ongoing geopolitical crisis in Ukraine.

Russia is not the first country to conduct such a test. China, the US and India have previously conducted similar launches, which also generated debris.

The Biden administration, which strictly censors the test, predicts that the number of “trackable” pieces of debris caused by it will surpass 1,500, along with hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces that could still break a computer. satellite.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard and Smithsonian who tracks the material, said if that number is accurate, it would increase the total number of space debris tracked as a result of the events. Test weapons cause up nearly half. Before this week, he added, there had been 3,158 tracked debris in orbit as a result of past weapons tests – out of a total of 18,646 objects tracked in space.

While most of the debris from this test is likely to have decomposed within five years, McDowell said, perhaps a fifth will last for a decade, and some debris from the 1,750kg satellite due to debris. Exploding Russia can fly up to 2,000km and takes nearly 15 years to rot.

The US Space Command told the Financial Times its initial count was 1,500 large debris objects based on Defense Department sensors and was “expected to grow”, adding that “It will take weeks, if not months, to fully analyze all the data provided by the multiple sensors and confidently catalog each object.”

A crab captured from SpaceX's live webcast shows a view of the Crew-2 SpaceX Dragon capsule dubbed 'Endeavour', on the fringes of the International Space Station, as they return to Earth on the day November 8

© AFP via Getty Images

Ceperley said small commercial satellites will now have to track debris continuously and prepare to change course to avoid collisions for years to come, adding that the additional risk and cost is a factor. obstacles to the new commercial space economy.

“Some of this debris has been kicked quite far from the satellite [that the Russian missile exploded] so maybe even in other parts of the space we have to go check,” he said.

Russian officials have denied the new debris is harmless, saying it is harmless and blaming the United States for instigating a space race amid reports the Pentagon is preparing to unveil new space programs.

Pavel Podvig, a senior research fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Studies, said the Russian military feels the need to be able to counter what it believes are plans to develop offensive weapons. from the American space.

“If you were in the business of building anti-satellite systems, you might make the argument that, look, what would happen if the US started deploying missile defense components in space. ? So Russia would need that kind of anti-satellite capability to target those targets,” Podvig said.

Graph showing breakdown of tracked objects in orbit

The US itself has conducted two anti-satellite tests in 1985 and 2008, and is planning new missile defense sensors in space that Russia and China can see as a direct threat. next.

Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow think-tank, said that most significantly, Moscow also considers the US Air Force’s X-37B, a “space plane” secretly filmed. around the Earth, is a major threat. .

He added that Russia’s weapons test this week was designed to target the X-37B, and so carrying out the test at that altitude was essential.

A US defense official describes the X-37B as an “experimental” program.
designed to demonstrate the technology for a
unmanned space testing platform for the United States Space Force, in addition to
“Demonstrates next-generation technologies for use in space”.

Russia’s 2014 military doctrine considers outer space an area of ​​potential conflict. Several U.S. military installations have also argued for the development of Weapons in space. “The large number of classified US ‘dark’ space projects shows that the US is actively developing space weapons and that the Americans already have more than one anti-satellite system,” Pukhov said.

Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, said the US actions had taken Russia by surprise. “The Russians are practicing shooting down satellites because the US is deploying satellites for missile defense missions,” he said.

“The United States wants space to be free of conflict, but we will be prepared to defend U.S. interests in space just as we do in other areas,” a US defense official said.

Image showing how orbital debris decomposes

Planet, a LeoLabs customer that operates a constellation of 200 satellites to observe Earth about 500 kilometers from Earth, said it is working to understand the potential risks from the increase in debris and noise. called for a ban on such tests, adding that the Russian launch added “a disturbing and irresponsible trend”, citing previous tests by China in 2007, the US in 2008. and India in 2019.

McDowell said there is only one piece left in orbit from India’s 2019 anti-satellite test, which produced 131 objects that were tracked at the time but conducted at a fairly low altitude and decayed. quickly, and there were no objects from the two US tests.

However, it took more than a decade for all the debris from the 1985 US test to decompose, and more than a year for the debris from the second US test in 2008. Meanwhile , 2,735 debris remains from China’s controversial 2007 high-altitude test.

But despite criticism of Russian missiles, Washington has consistently rejected efforts to ban such tests, according to Ankit Panda, an arms control expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It can’t just be wrong for Russia and China to do that; It needs to be okay for our friends to do the same,” he said.

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