Last week, when I wrote about India’s recently proven ASAT technology that took down one of their own satellites, it appears I gave them a bit too much benefit of the doubt. Among the various concerns raised by this show of force was the fear that they might generate a new cluster of orbital debris, posing even more of a risk to rockets, other satellites, and the International Space Station. At the time, India claimed there was nothing to worry about because they had intentionally put their satellite in a very low orbit and the remains would soon fall and burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere.
Having been given a suitable amount of time to investigate the situation, NASA is saying they managed to mess that part of the job up as well. A significant number of pieces of space junk are now zipping around the planet in an orbit high enough to cross the orbit of the ISS. (Space.com)
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said today (April 1) that India’s recent anti-satellite test created 60 pieces of orbital debris big enough to track, 24 of which rise higher than the International Space Station’s orbit around Earth.
Bridenstine had harsh words to say about India’s test today in a NASA town hall meeting, saying that causing this type of risk to humans in space, and low Earth orbit operations, was unacceptable.
“That is a terrible, terrible thing, to create an event that sends debris in an apogee that goes above the International Space Station,” Bridenstine said at the town hall meeting, which was livestreamed on NASA TV. “And that kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight that we need to see happen.”
Well, that’s just great. They managed to blow up their own satellite, but it generated sixty pieces of space junk “large enough to track.” That doesn’t include the rest of the smaller flotsam and jetsam that was probably produced. And it’s all zipping around the planet at roughly 17,000 miles per hour.
It’s worth mentioning that an object the size of a small screw traveling at that speed is capable of tearing through the walls of the space station. Some of the bigger objects that can be tracked from the ground could probably take out an entire module or one of the solar panels. There are already people investing a lot of time and resources into the development of programs that would allow us to start capturing all of the garbage we’ve discarded into orbit. (A monumental task if it’s even possible.) The last thing we need is to have space agencies intentionally generating more.
Back in 2015, the entire crew of the ISS was evacuated into their escape capsule when a piece of space junk came hurtling at them and it wasn’t detected in time to move the station out of the way. That one narrowly missed but could have been catastrophic if it had just slammed into them. It wasn’t the only time we’ve had scares like that, either. There were near collisions in 2009 and 2011 as well.
On top of all the concerns over space debris, we’re still not even addressing the growing threat of space warfare where countries start shooting down each other’s satellites intentionally. I discussed the level of threat that poses in the previous article, and now India has joined the club of ASAT capable nations. If they want to be members, they need to start acting in a more responsible fashion.