Space junk is a massive problem. Russia’s anti-satellite missile test just made it worse

Days after world powers wrapped up a monumental climate summit in Glasgow, another environmental emergency was unfolding — this time in space.

On Monday, Russia fired a missile at one of its own satellites as a test, generating thousands of pieces of debris that sent crew members on the International Space Station scrambling for cover.

The anti-satellite test was condemned by US officials — and much of the scientific community — as a “reckless and dangerous act” that could pose a threat to space activities for years to come.

The missile test created more than 1,500 pieces of trackable debris, according to US Space Command. The fragments are a hazard to the current seven-person crew on the International Space Station — which includes two Russians — and to other satellites that provide crucial communication services back on Earth.

But the newly-created space junk also adds to the more than 9,600 tons of debris orbiting our planet, according to the European Space Agency.

More than six decades after the Soviets launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, the junkyard in our skies is growing. Experts warn that much like the climate crisis facing Earth, space is also feeling the impact of human activity.

“You can look at the build-up of plastic in Earth’s oceans, and the build-up of junk in orbit around the Earth as being very similar,” said Hugh Lewis, professor of engineering and physical sciences at the UK’s University of Southampton.

“The Earth environment and the space environment — is just one environment,” he said, adding that while some governments are working on improving space sustainability, there is still a lot of diplomatic work required.

Space junk was not on the negotiating table at the COP26 climate summit.

Junkyard in the sky

Invisible in the night sky, there are hundreds of millions of debris objects orbiting our planet. This debris is composed of parts of old satellites as well as entire defunct satellites and rocket bodies.

According to a January report by NASA, at least 26,000 of the pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth are the size of a softball or larger — big enough to wreck a satellite; more than 500,000 pieces of debris are marble-sized — capable of damaging spacecraft, while “over 100 million pieces are the size of a grain of salt that could puncture a spacesuit.”

As these fragments knock into each other, they can create yet more pieces of smaller orbital debris.

“The smaller the fragment, typically the faster it will decay out of the environment,” said Lewis.

The debris created from Russia’s missile test ranges in altitude from 440 kilometers to 520 kilometers, according to space tracking service LeoLabs.

Debris at roughly this altitude is a “concern but in many senses a blessing,” said Lewis. He explained that the debris would essentially “rain down” and “burn up” as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere.

But Russia’s recent missile test will also cause a “significant increase of obstacle-collision avoidance actions” to be taken by satellites, said Tim Flohrer, an expert in space debris at the European Space Agency.

Flohrer also pointed to the importance of services like telecommunications, weather forecasting and GPS — all of which rely on satellites.

He said that while people may not feel the immediate impact of space junk in their daily lives, society is nonetheless increasingly “depending on space as an infrastructure for a lot of services on ground.”

“If the amount of space debris increases further and further, it endangers the future use of space by everyone,” he said.

Russia flexes space muscles

Why Russia would carry out this test now is “the billion dollar question,” said Lewis.

“In the past, nations have conducted these types of tests to demonstrate their technology and the capability — and also to make a statement that they’re able to do that,” he said.

Only a few countries — the US, Russia, India and China — have carried out successful anti-satellite weapon tests.

This is not the first time Russia has carried out such tests. But Monday’s incident drew Western condemnation for potentially endangering the ISS and its crew.

The crew had to quickly don their spacesuits and jump into their spacecrafts in case the station was hit by some passing debris, according to Russia’s space agency ROSCOSMOS.

But in a message posted on Twitter, Roscosmos downplayed the danger.

“The orbit of the object, which forced the crew today to move into spacecraft according to standard procedures, has moved away from the ISS orbit,” Roscosmos tweeted. “The station is in the green zone.”

The incident comes at a time of increased tensions between the US and Russia. US officials have publicly sounded the alarm about Russia’s buildup of troops near its border with Ukraine and joined European nations in expressing concern about the migrant crisis on the border with Russia’s close ally Belarus.

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