The test of a Russian direct ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) weapon against one of that nation’s non-functioning satellites generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable debris and hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Nov. 15.
If true, the ASAT test would have thrown off roughly half the debris of a 2007 Chinese DA-ASAT test that created 3,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 centimeters (Defense Daily, Nov. 17, 2020).
Army Gen. James Dickinson, the head of U.S. Space Command, said in a statement on Nov. 15 that “the debris created by Russia’s DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers.”
The Russian test on Nov. 15 appears to have been a Russian Nudol DA-ASAT weapon against the defunct Russian Cosmos 1408 electronic intelligence satellite, launched on Sept. 16, 1982. The Nudol is a ballistic missile designed to intercept satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO).
The pieces of debris from the Russian test “threaten the interest of all nations,” and the test “will significantly increase the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station,” Price said on Nov. 15.
“Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of outer space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weaponization of space are disingenous and hypocritical,” he said. “The United States will work with our allies and partners to respond to Russia’s irresponsible act.”
Yet, the United States has not been blameless either in generating space debris. In February 2008–13 months after the Chinese ASAT test–a Standard Missile-3 launched by the USS Lake Erie (CG-70) destroyed a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite orbiting in LEO 153 miles over the Pacific Ocean.
A larger number of objects in LEO could reach a threshold and start a chain reaction of follow-on collisions – the Kessler effect, leaving parts of space completely unusable, space experts have said.
U.S. Space Command has said that on April 15 last year, Russia tested another DA-ASAT missile–likely the Nudol. In addition, Russia’s testing of the “nesting doll” Cosmos 2542 and 2543 satellites represent a significant, future danger to LEO satellites, per U.S. space officials.
In January last year, the ostensibly space surveillance/inspection bird, Cosmos 2542, launched on Nov. 25, 2019, synchronized its orbit with USA 245–launched in 2013 and one of four multi-billion dollar, classified Lockheed Martin [LMT] KH-11 electro-optical spy satellites under the NRO’s Keyhole/CRYSTAL program.
U.S. defense officials have said that Russia and China are leading ASAT efforts, including China’s fielding of ground-based ASAT missiles intended to destroy satellites in LEO and ground-based ASAT lasers that U.S. officials believe are intended to blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors on LEO satellites.
China, for its part, has suggested in its report to the United Nations on recommended norms of behavior in space that the U.S. is able to use space systems, such as the Boeing [BA] X-37B and the L3Harris Technologies [LHX] Counter Communications System, offensively.
In July, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directed Dickinson to lead an effort to develop guidance on the tenets of responsible behavior in space, including not generating long-lived debris, maintaining safe trajectories and separation from other space vehicles, and avoiding the creation of harmful interference (Defense Daily, July 23).