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Russia’s ASAT missile test in context Meduza explains why Moscow risked an international scandal to shoot down an orbiting hunk of Soviet metal

Source: Meduza
NASA / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Earlier this week, the Russian military fired a missile into outer space and blew up a Soviet “Tselina-D class” satellite that had been orbiting the Earth since 1982. The U.S. government says the weapons test created a large debris cloud that endangers the crew aboard the International Space Station, calling Moscow’s behavior “dangerous and irresponsible,” which predictably led the Russian Defense Ministry to deny Washington’s allegations and accuse the United States of “hypocrisy,” given past debris-generating anti-satellite weapons tests by India, China, and America. Meduza summarizes what we know about this week’s orbital event and how dangerous it really is.

On Monday, November 15, NASA and the U.S. State Department issued strong condemnations of an apparent weapons test conducted some 500 kilometers (310 miles) above the Earth: A Russian missile destroyed “Cosmos-1408,” an inoperative Soviet “Tselina-D class” reconnaissance satellite first launched in 1982.

The long-dead Soviet spacecraft served as the target in a missile test that American officials say risked the lives of the crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) by scattering thousands of fast-moving shrapnel near the orbiting station. Russia insists that the debris came no nearer than 40 kilometers (25 miles), but NASA says the astronauts and cosmonauts were awakened early and ordered to retreat to their docked Soyuz and Crew Dragon spacecraft in case an impact prompted an evacuation. U.S. officials say they’ve tracked 1,500 pieces of orbital debris caused by the Soviet satellite’s destruction, but there are likely “hundreds of thousands” more smaller pieces that also endanger anything or anyone in their path. According to NASA, this trash will circle the Earth for decades, posing a constant threat to the operations of all spacefaring nations.

A day later, Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed that a “successful test” resulted in damage to one of its inoperative orbital spacecrafts (officials did not clarify what the military had tested). Moscow also shared a video indicating that the debris caused by the test never came close enough to threaten the ISS crew.

Why is anyone shooting satellites out of the sky?

 The logic behind anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons isn’t readily apparent. There are thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth and shooting them down with missiles is expensive and not particularly effective. This week’s test was Russia’s first: until now, the only countries that ever blasted their satellites from orbit were China (in 2007), the U.S. (2008), and India (2019). Moscow’s military capacity to carry out these attacks, however, has been assumed since the Soviet Union’s “Istrebitel Sputnikov” (Destroyer of Satellites) program.

But Russia’s test this week was likely more about practicing against an enemy warhead, not a satellite, Russian military expert Pavel Luzin told Meduza. In this case, the destroyed Soviet spacecraft would have simulated a warhead in flight, which can reach the same altitude as Cosmos-1408’s orbit (about 500 kilometers above Earth). Other military experts speculate that Russia’s Armed Forces were testing a possible strike against an orbital aircraft like the Boeing X-37, which fly at altitudes between 200 and 750 kilometers (125 to 465 miles).

Do you need a special kind of missile to shoot down a satellite or a warhead?

No, a conventional, relatively small missile-defense interceptor would do the job at this altitude. There’s no definitive proof, but American analysts believe this week’s test involved Russia’s “Nudol” missile system, which has been under development since the Soviet era. If Moscow had used a more powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (which can be used to shoot down targets orbiting even higher), existing international agreements would have required the Kremlin to warn the United States, says Pavel Luzin, but Russia is under no obligation to warn anyone ahead of a Nudol missile launch.

Luzin told Meduza that such weapons tests are badly needed today, given Moscow’s evolving missile defense strategy. In the Soviet era, the military prepared to intercept nuclear strikes with reverse-shot nuclear blasts directly over the intended targets, for example in the sky above Moscow. Today, Russia hopes to intercept warheads farther away from targets at the highest possible altitude. This is essentially what the military tested in space this week.

Could Russia have targeted something other than a satellite, avoiding a dangerous debris cloud?

It’s unclear what alternatives existed for this test, given that Russia’s anti-satellite defense program relies on missile launches from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome (though, on rare occasions, the military has used the Sary Shagan anti-ballistic missile testing range located in Kazakhstan). The target had to meet several parameters: not just altitude but also approach vector in its trajectory over Plesetsk. Based on the likely purpose of the test, interception probably would have occurred on a collision course because the missile flies toward a warhead instead of catching up to it. Additionally, the military would have needed to monitor and document the missile’s entire flight, meaning that it had to be aimed into Russia’s available radar coverage area. Considering these factors, Pavel Luzin says the Tselina-D class Soviet satellite was possibly Moscow’s only option.

Russia can’t simply move a missile test like this to another spaceport; the Plesetsk Cosmodrome has too many unique characteristics (including its location).

Naturally, the Russian military knew that destroying the satellite would leave behind a whirling cloud of debris, but this week’s test is hardly the first incident that littered Earth’s orbit with dangerous junk. It would have been impossible to model the wreckage completely (and it seems the test created more debris than Moscow expected), but spacefaring nations have grown accustomed in recent years to international protests over the generation of orbital debris. In 2019, for example, NASA criticized India for an ASAT test that also scattered debris near the International Space Station. In fact, just a week ago, the station was forced to maneuver itself to avoid colliding with debris from a Chinese antisatellite weapon test way back in 2007.

“From a political point of view, Russia’s reputation has taken a hit,” says Luzin. “But there’s a plus side, too: Russia has become a country that shot down a satellite. This can be used in arms bargaining with the Americans. Somebody will get a medal, and somebody might get slapped on the wrist. Yes, there’s the debris cloud, but the station wasn’t damaged, and history is written by the winners.”

The U.S. accuses other countries of endangering outer space with antisatellite missile tests, but are the Americans’ tests any safer?

When the U.S. shot down a non-functioning reconnaissance satellite in 2008, the test also created an unpredictable debris cloud, but that wreckage burned up in the atmosphere within a few weeks because the interception occurred much lower in orbit, around 250 kilometers (about 155 miles) above the Earth. Pieces of Cosmos-1408, on the other hand, will continue to circle the planet for years.

In this sense, it’s possible to say that the American military operated more cleanly, perhaps justifying Washington’s anger about “messier” incidents like this week’s Russian test.

But it’s important to remember that both the United States and Russia are responsible for 85 percent of the garbage now orbiting the Earth. And all of it is dangerous.

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Text by Dmitry Vachedin

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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