Shocking visualizations reveal the huge cloud of space debris created by Russia’s anti-satellite weapons test last week, which deliberately shattered a 40-year-old intelligence satellite into fragments.
Russia’s anti-satellite, or ASAT, was launched on November 15 and deliberately shattered the country’s 4,410-pound Cosmos 1408 satellite, launched in 1982, because it was no longer operational.
According to experts, the space debris from last week’s collision across the Atlantic – which included ‘about 1,500 pieces of traceable size’ – will cause chaos for spacecraft for years, if not decades.
Due to the impact, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), which orbited 260 miles from Earth, were asked to take shelter for two hours to let the waste pass.
A space company criticized Russia for endangering the crew of the ISS, calling it an ‘irresponsible act that harms all space nations’.
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Russia blew up one of its own satellites on Monday, November 15, using a missile. Cosmos 1408, a defunct spy satellite launched in 1982, was the destroyed target, resulting in a field of 1,500 pieces of debris exposing the crew on the ISS
The waste field created by the Russian anti-satellite test against Cosmos 1408 in LEO (low orbit around the Earth) is causing alarm for ISS crews, satellite operators and space nations.
Cosmos 1408, also spelled Kosmos 1408, was a Soviet ELINT (Electronic and Signals Intelligence) satellite launched from the Plesetsk cosmodrome on 16 September 1982.
It was designed to determine the exact location, activity and other details of radio transmitters.
On November 15, 2021, Cosmos 1408, which was no longer in operation, was destroyed in a Russian kinetic anti-satellite test, generating a cloud of debris, including about 1,500 pieces of traceable size.
Cosmos 1408 orbited about 300 miles from the Earth’s surface at that time, creating a field of waste between 270 miles and 320 miles from the surface.
The ISS usually orbits about 260 miles above the Earth’s surface, although on Monday it was slightly lower at 250 miles, meaning that the debris passed over it at a distance of about 20 miles as their orbits crossed.
However, astronauts aboard the ISS were ordered by Houston Mission Control to get to safety inside the ship’s escape pods.
Space debris, or space debris, consists of discarded launchers or parts of a spacecraft that hover around space hundreds of miles above Earth and risk colliding with satellites or a space station.
Waste can also be caused by an explosion in space, or when countries perform missile tests to deliberately destroy their own satellites using missiles.
Apart from Russia, China, the United States and India have shot down satellites and created a massive trail of space debris orbiting our planet.
EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (EU SST) confirmed the break-up of Cosmos 1408, based on sensor readings, in the ‘already congested’ low earth orbit (LEO).
“Kinetic anti-satellite tests (ASAT) are usually performed against objects in orbit for strategic purposes or for the purpose of demonstrating or testing technological capabilities,” the statement said.
‘These tests, which lead to the creation of space debris, jeopardize our space infrastructure, including human life aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and the long-term sustainability of space activities.’
Simulation of the initial scattering of the fragments as a result of the reported anti-satellite weapons test on Monday 15 November
WILL THE SPACE AREA AFFECT SPACE TRAVEL?
Although space debris is unlikely to affect space travel, it will lead to significant problems for space travel around the Earth.
The risk would be greatest for objects orbiting at an altitude of about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) used for communication and earth observation.
“We will still be able to travel to Mars because we will transit very quickly through this problematic region,” Holger Krag, head of ESA’s Space Safety Program Office, told Reuters.
“But if you want to operate and stay for years in this problematic region, it may not be possible anymore in a few decades from now.”
LeoLabs, a private space tracking company in the US, said there would be a potential collision risk for most low-orbit satellites around Earth due to the fragmentation of Cosmos 1408 ‘over the next few years to decades’.
“A significant collapse occurred in space and was deliberately carried out by Russia via direct-ascending anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile attack on one of their own defunct satellites,” the company said.
‘LeoLabs unequivocally condemns this irresponsible act, which is now harming all space nations and the entire space economy for years to come.’
According to the European Space Agency, swirling fragments of previously man-made spacecraft are trapped in orbit around Earth.
Over time, the number, mass, and area of these waste objects grow steadily, increasing the risk to functioning satellites and even the well-being of astronauts.
According to Hugh Lewis, a professor of engineering at the University of Southampton, each piece of space debris from the collision moves at different speeds depending on the height of its orbit.
Professor Lewis has made his own visualization, which shows a stream of debris shooting up away from the Earth before spreading.
“Even though they all start, what happens is that those in the larger orbits take longer to orbit the Earth, and those in the smaller orbits take less time to orbit the Earth,” Professor Lewis told Verge.
3D graph of the cloud of traced fragments per November 18, 2021, as mapped by EU Space Surveillance and Tracking
‘So those who are lower seem to be moving in front of those who are in the higher lanes. And that’s what stretches it out. ‘
Waste from Cosmos 1408 simply adds a cloud of junk leading to an ever-increasing risk of collision.
Fragments of space debris as small as a centimeter have the potential to completely destroy satellites due to the speed at which they travel.
According to NASA, there are about 23,000 pieces of debris that are larger than a softball orbiting the Earth.
There are half a million pieces of waste the size of a marble (up to 0.4 inches) or larger, and about 100 million pieces of waste about 0.04 inches and larger.
Screenshot from a visualization of Hugh Lewis, Professor of Engineering at the University of Southampton
There is even more waste in smaller micrometer sizes (0.000039 of an inch in diameter), NASA claims.
ESA, meanwhile, estimates that the total mass of all space objects in orbit around the Earth is more than 9,600 tons.
It estimates that there have been more than 560 crashes, explosions, collisions or abnormal events that have resulted in fragmentation.
Earlier this year, an expert at the European Commission warned that unwanted waste left by humans in low orbit around the Earth has become equivalent to a ‘new floating island of plastic’.
WHAT IS SPACE? MORE THAN 170 MILLION PIECES OF DEATH SATELLITES, USED ROCKETS AND PAINT FLAGS ARE ‘THREAT’ TO THE SPACE INDUSTRY
An estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space debris’ – left behind by missions as large as used rocket stages or as small as paint flakes – are in orbit along with about $ 700 billion (£ 555 billion) of space infrastructure.
But only 27,000 are tracked, and with the fragments capable of traveling at speeds above 16,777 mph (27,000 kmh), even small pieces can severely damage or destroy satellites.
However, traditional gripping methods do not work in space, as suction cups do not work in a vacuum and the temperatures are too cold for fabrics such as tape and glue.
Grippers based around magnets are useless because most of the debris in orbit around the Earth is not magnetic.
About 500,000 pieces of man-made waste (artist’s impression) are currently orbiting our planet, consisting of decommissioned satellites, pieces of spacecraft and used rockets
Most proposed solutions, including waste harpoons, either require or cause strong interaction with the waste, which can push these objects in unintentional, unpredictable directions.
Researchers point to two events that have exacerbated the problem of space junk.
The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecommunications satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.
The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an ancient Fengyun weather satellite.
Experts also pointed to two sites that have become worryingly cluttered.
One is low-Earth orbit, used by satellite navigators, the ISS, China’s manned missions, and the Hubble Telescope, among others.
The other is in geostationary orbit and is used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites to maintain a fixed position relative to Earth.