China, Russia, and the junkyard wars in orbit

(209 kilometers)

Answering the question of what Russia has been up to lately to cause more problems for everyone else, an article at CNN today provides an answer. But this time it doesn’t have anything to do with their meddling in Afghanistan or trying to mess up the global oil market. This issue is quite a bit more “out there.” In fact, it’s out of our atmosphere. The United States Space Force reported a possible “debris-generating event” in low Earth orbit this weekend, though no further details were initially provided. But now, sources familiar with the situation are saying that the Russians tested a powerful new anti-satellite weapon and blew up one of their own old satellites. This has potentially created a dangerous cloud of metallic debris that is now orbiting the planet at high speeds and potentially endangering active satellites and even the International Space Station (ISS).

The US is concerned that Russia carried out a major anti-satellite weapons test over the weekend, two US officials told CNN. One of the officials said it may have created a potentially dangerous debris field in space.

US Space Command confirmed that a rare and potentially dangerous “debris-generating event” took place but did not provide details or mention Russia. The two officials said the State Department is preparing to put out a statement later today.

One of the officials said a ground-based missile was launched at a target in orbit which would be notable because only a handful of successful anti-satellite weapon tests have been carried out by the US, Russia, China and India.

The crew of the ISS reportedly had to don their spacesuits and prepare for an emergency evacuation drill today, though it hasn’t been confirmed that these two events were related. And they might not have been, but we recently learned that the Chinese had done the same thing and that forced the ISS to fire its maneuvering rockets to avoid a possible collision. But that satellite had actually been blown up more than a decade ago. (The Debrief)

The crew of the International Space Station (ISS) fired maneuvering rockets last week to avoid being struck by a chunk of a previously destroyed Chinese weather satellite. Smashed to bits by an anti-satellite missile test nearly fifteen years earlier, the piece of debris was projected to come close enough to the ISS that the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos (who coordinated the maneuver) decided to execute the move.

“It just makes sense to go ahead and do this burn and put this behind us so we can ensure the safety of the crew,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station manager, at a press conference on Tuesday, according to the New York Times.

There are two different and equally disturbing trends being highlighted by these stories. One is the obvious concern over adversarial nations developing the ability to blow up each other’s satellites. In the (hopefully unlikely) event of another major war between the most powerful militaries on Earth, it’s been speculated that one of the first moves any of us might make is to take out the other side’s satellites. This would disable or at least cripple many of our weapons systems and disrupt communications with disparate military and civilian entities. And if that doesn’t worry you enough, your GPS will probably stop working also and nobody even owns a darned map anymore.

The other problem is already upon us and it was posing concerns long before these new weapons were being deployed. Low Earth orbit is a junkyard full of metallic garbage and things are becoming increasingly crowded up there. We are currently tracking tens of thousands of junk objects in space ranging from the size of small nuts and bolts to automobiles, or even larger. And if any of them run into the ISS or one of our functional satellites at 17,000 miles per hour, well… let’s just say it’s going to be bad.

Some work is being done to try to alleviate the issue. A new advancement in plasma thruster technology will supposedly deliver maneuverable satellites that can not only stay in operation for a long time but will cannibalize all of the space junk to use as fuel. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a while before projects such as that one get off the ground (literally), and we need some better answers more quickly than that. If we could stop arguing with each other long enough, it would be nice if the spacefaring nations could get together and jointly fund some new missions with no goal other than scooping up all of that junk and either bumping it down to burn up in the atmosphere or launching it further out to escape Earth’s orbit and hopefully burn up in the sun. But given the current state of our foreign policy situation, it’s unclear if the rest of the countries capable of funding and launching such missions are in much of a mood to talk to us.