Science

A Near Disaster In Space


TL;DR (2-minute read)

  • The Russian Federation destroyed a decommissioned spy satellite in the path of the International Space Station (ISS), causing a large field of debris to scatter, some if it still in the path of the ISS.
  • The large field of debris still poses immediate and continuing risks to nearby satellites and space stations.
  • Quick actions were taken to help mitigate loss of life of any of the astronauts aboard the ISS; they were woken in the middle of the night and told to take emergency precautions.

Satellites are our key to intelligence, mobile data, and GPS. At a certain point in time all satellites will no longer be able to resist Earth’s gravity and begin falling back towards the atmosphere. If a satellite could manage to find its way back to the surface of Earth, it could kill millions. Without the atmosphere to protect satellites from UV and other types of radiation, the satellites have the same heat shielding that the space shuttles have for re-entry. That is the issue: many of the satellites are large enough to flatten cities like New York, London, or Hong Kong. So to combat this many space agencies use anti-space missiles to blow up descending satellites. 

The Russian satellite Kosmos 1048 highlighted in yellow. Slingshot Aerospace
Image taken after propagation of debris. Slingshot Aerospace

Kosmos 1408 is the official name of the now decommissioned Soviet satellite, whose purpose was, espionage. NASA indicates its purpose was to detect radio emitters. The satellite hasn’t been used since the early ‘90s. It has been on a slow orbital descent back down to Earth. Then on the 15th of November, 2021 the Russian government launched a missile to destroy said satellite. Satellite destruction does not cause immediate descent back towards Earth, instead creating the standard dust cloud. Unfortunately, that field of exploded satellites crossed directly in the orbital path of the international space station(ISS). Though the Russian Federation claimed that the field would not impact the ISS, the government forgot to include gravity in their calculations. 

The International Space Station (ISS). NASA

Future Implications

The explosion and subsequent debris field from Kosmos 1408 could have been fatal. Reports indicate that the astronauts onboard had to be woken up to take emergency precautions. Though this could have still been for nothing as any of the 1500 trackable pieces which even the untraceable pieces could still pose serious risk of exploding the space station. Along with crew evacuation as a last resort, the ISS can physically move away from the debris but this could potentially move the station into the path of other debris fields. The Kosmos 1408 is the latest edition to the abhorrent amount of space junk we have left in orbit around our small blue planet. And as satellites continue to be launched and decommissioned more serious threats to our space stations could occur. Not only do these debris fields affect current and future space stations or satellites, they also affect flight plans for any future missions to leave Earth. Exploding satellites seems to be the easiest way of getting rid of decommissioned equipment but what hazards does it create to life and its exploration of the stars. 

Sources

https://www.spacecom.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2842957/russian-direct-ascent-anti-satellite-missile-test-creates-significant-long-last/

https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraft/display.action?id=1982-092A

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvdQcDDUV1o

https://www.space.com/space-station-crew-russian-space-debris-audio

https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/15/politics/russia-anti-satellite-weapon-test-scn/index.html

https://www.livescience.com/iss-danger-russia-missile-test

https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/11/new-images-and-analyses-reveal-extent-of-cosmos-1408-debris-cloud/

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-administrator-statement-on-russian-asat-test

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