In the small hours of 15 November, the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) was woken by an emergency call from mission control in Houston, said Brandon Specktor on Space.com (New York). More than 1,500 pieces of debris were hurtling towards them at up to 17,500mph; they were to take cover in the capsules that had carried them to the ISS.
The debris was the remains of a Soviet-era spy satellite (known as Kosmos-1408) which had been blown up in a Russian missile test. Ultimately, it passed without damaging the ISS, but the furious response from Nasa – which accused Moscow of recklessly jeopardising the ISS and the lives of the seven astronauts on board (including two Russians) – was entirely justified.
Russia insisted the fragments didn’t pose any threat to space activity, yet “even a scrap of metal the size of a pea can become a potentially deadly missile” in space; Russia’s actions could have “obliterated” the ISS.
“Space junk” is hardly a new phenomenon, said Ramin Skibba in Wired (San Francisco). The Pentagon now tracks more than 27,000 pieces of debris, including dead spacecraft and used-up rocket boosters. The US is even working with private firms on technology that can pick up debris and drag it out of satellites’ paths.
China, the US and India have all conducted satellite-destroying missile tests like this one, said Valery Shiryaev in Novaya Gazeta (Moscow). But there’s a key difference: all of them targeted “objects in much lower orbits”, meaning most of the fragments “burnt up in the Earth’s atmosphere”. No one had destroyed satellites above the orbit of the permanently inhabited ISS, a step fraught with risk. “We are the first, alas.”
This incident shows that space is becoming increasingly militarised, said Etienne Meyer-Vacherand in Le Temps (Geneva). The current treaties governing space are hard to enforce, and the great powers are now preparing to “defend their interests beyond the Earth’s atmosphere”.
This show of strength in orbit was probably an example of “radical deterrence”, said Brandon J. Weichert in Asia Times (Hong Kong). Moscow recently clashed with Washington over its military build-up near Ukraine. It knows the US relies more heavily on satellites “than any other nation on Earth” – for civilian infrastructure and for its military, which could be left “impotent” if key satellites were disabled. In endangering the ISS so recklessly, Moscow is letting its opponents know “just how far it is willing to go to achieve its strategic objectives”.