Russia shot down one of its Soviet-era satellites for a weapons test on Monday, sending more than 1,500 pieces of trackable debris into space. This forced astronauts on the International Space Station to burrow for about two hours in two spacecraft that could bring them back to Earth in the event of an imminent collision. While the International Space Station looks clear at the moment, experts say the situation remains dangerous. Satellite operators will likely need to navigate this new cloud of space junk for several years, possibly decades.
In fact, Russia’s latest missile test may have increased the total amount of space junk, including discarded rocket parts and satellites in Earth’s orbit, by as much as 10 percent. These pieces spin at incredibly high speeds and risk hitting active satellites that power critical technologies, such as GPS navigation and weather forecasting. Space debris like this is so dangerous that national security officials worry that it could be used as a weapon in a future space war. In fact, the US State Department has already said that Monday’s missile test is evidence that Russia is more than willing to create debris that threatens the safety of all nations operating in low Earth orbit, and even risks disrupting peace in space.
These risks have heightened concerns that we are far from solving the problem of space junk, especially as private companies and foreign governments launch thousands of new satellites into orbit — inevitably creating even more space junk.
However, Monday’s events were more politically risky than an ordinary space debris incident. The Russian government launched the so-called Satellite Test (ASAT), which, as the name implies, is designed to destroy satellites in orbit. Launched from a location a few hundred miles north of Moscow, the rocket hit a non-functioning Russian spy satellite called Kosmos-1408 that has been orbiting Earth since 1982. The satellite is now split into thousands of pieces that are currently orbiting. Earth at 17,000 miles per hour, passes the International Space Station approximately every 90 minutes. While astronauts no longer need shelter, the threat to the International Space Station or other satellites has not gone away.
“I am outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “With its long and rich history in human spaceflight, it is inconceivable that Russia would endanger not only American and international astronauts on the International Space Station, but also their own cosmonauts.” Nelson added that Russia’s actions were “reckless and dangerous” and also endangered those on board the Chinese space station Tiangong.
While Russia admitted to destroying a satellite in the latest test, its Defense Ministry insisted that the event did not endanger the International Space Station.
Russia is one of four countries, including India, the United States and China, to blow up its own satellite Using an anti-satellite missile. This trend is alarming because governments with anti-satellite systems can use the technology to attack other countries’ satellites, turning space into a battlefield. But even if nations are only targeting their own space objects, the Russian missile test shows how governments can also use anti-satellite missiles to create debris that threatens every nation, company or person operating in orbit. And again, once this debris is created, it can remain a threat for years. Just last week, the International Space Station had to adjust its altitude by about a mile to avoid colliding with space debris from a satellite shot down by China in 2007.
The problem of junk space is only increasing. Currently, there are more than 100 million pieces of space junk larger than one millimeter orbiting the Earth, according to NASA. As of May, the Department of Defense has tracked more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, but even smaller pieces can pose an enormous danger to satellites and other space stations due to the incredibly high speed at which they travel.
“I don’t think you can overestimate the danger of space debris at this point,” Wendy Whitman Cope, a professor at the US Air Force’s School of Atmospheric and Space Studies, told Recode. “As you create more debris, the chances of that debris hitting other things and creating more debris kind of increase.”
What makes the space junk problem particularly difficult is that no one has ever taken responsibility for it. According to the Outer Space Treaty, the basis of international space law, nations remain the owners of any objects they send into space, so Russia still technically owns all parts of the satellites created by Monday’s rocket test. There is no global consensus on the sanctions for creating space junk, and tracing and attributing different parts of the debris to space operations in different countries remains difficult.
Government agencies and private space companies are developing technology to remove space waste, such as nets that could pick up debris in orbit and devices that would propel satellites into the atmosphere for disintegration. But there is concern that governments could use the same tools to take out another country’s satellites. At the same time, the cost of creating — and removing — space junk is rarely taken into account in the decision to launch a vehicle or satellite into space.
“In many ways, this is the same kind of problem, an environmental issue we’ve been dealing with on Earth in many ways,” Achilles Rao, an economist at Middlebury who has studied space debris, told Recode. “We have suffered from the collapse of fisheries, we have struggled with atmospheric pollution, [and] We have experienced depletion of the ozone layer.”
For now, the best way we have right now to mitigate the many dangers of orbital debris is to not create space junk in the first place. It may happen through better international cooperation or the creation of new economic incentives for private companies, but the earlier this happens, the better. Although we are generally able to navigate around space junk that already exists, that will only get more difficult as more debris accumulates. And if we don’t find a solution in time, we could end up in a situation where Low Earth Orbit is too full of space junk to be navigable.