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Russia’s Destruction of an Orbiting Satellite Raises Space Debris Concerns

11/17/2021

Russia tested an anti-satellite weapon on November 15, destroying one of its own old and defunct satellites, Kosmos 1408. Launched in 1982, Kosmos 1408 was some 300 miles above Earth. Its destruction generated a debris field in Earth orbit that prompted the seven International Space Station crew members, including one Russian cosmonaut, to take cover in their crew capsules for several hours, in case they had to abandon the station. Occupants of the Chinese space station are reported to have taken similar action. The incident also has generated criticism from many corners and a grave discussion on the possible impact of any future such tests, by Russia or anyone else.

The danger of damage to the ISS or an orbiting satellite aside, tracking a debris field that could include thousands of pieces, in order to head off collisions, is a concern all its own. Very small debris in space is essentially impossible to track reliably, if at all. The incident also comes at a time when the number of spacecraft in Earth orbit continues to grow. AMSAT President Robert Bankston, KE4AL, said that Russia’s action will pose a threat to all activities in low Earth orbit for years to come, placing satellites and human spaceflight missions at risk.

“Space is already crowded, but now there are at least 1,500 trackable fragments and, possibly, hundreds of thousands of smaller yet still-threatening pieces of debris in low Earth orbit,” Bankston said. “While space stations have the capability to move out of the way, with sufficient notice, most satellites in low Earth orbit, including those designed, built, launched, and operated by AMSAT, do not. As such, they face greater risk of catastrophic destruction or degraded mission functionality, if struck by fragments from Russia’s destruction of Kosmos-1408.”

Bankston said AMSAT is closely monitoring the situation and hoping for the best.

NASA Chief Bill Nelson echoed Secretary of State Antony Blinken in expressing his own outrage at Russia’s action. “Their actions are reckless and dangerous threatening as well the Chinese space station at the taikonauts on board,” he said. “The [ISS] is passing through or near the cloud every 90 minutes, but the need to shelter for only the second and third passes of the event was based on a risk assessment made by the debris office and ballistics specialists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston,” Nelson explained.

FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington condemned the incident as “irresponsible” and noting that orbital debris fields pose a threat to hopes for the peaceful use of space and “make the work of using space complicated and difficult,” he said in a statement. “For decades to come, they stifle scientific research, inhibit communications, and pose threats to the lives of explorers. And in the here and now, they pose a great threat to [existing] satellites of all nations” deployed for peaceful purposes.

“No one owns space,” Simington said. “And no one should intentionally make it more difficult to use.”

The FCC’s orbital debris rules date back to 2004, when the FCC adopted requirements affecting not only Part 97 Amateur Service rules but Parts 5 (experimental) and 25 (communications satellites) The FCC has made it clear that orbital debris rules apply to amateur satellites, in general requiring submission of an orbital debris mitigation plan with each license application.   



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