Russian weapons test resulted in debris now threatening space station, U.S. says

Orbiting space junk identified as debris from a Russian arms test threatened the seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station on Monday, forcing them to seek shelter in their docked capsules and disrupting their work.

Debris will pose an 'ongoing hazard' for years to come, officials say

In this image from video provided by NASA, the Expedition 66 crew poses for a photo on Thursday, after SpaceX's arrival at the International Space Station, their new home until spring. (The Associated Press)

A space missile fired by Russia into one of its own satellites in a weapons test on Monday generated an orbital debris field that endangered the International Space Station and will pose an ongoing hazard "for years to come," U.S. officials said.

The seven-member space station crew — four U.S. astronauts, a German astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts — were directed to take shelter in their docked spaceship capsules for two hours after the test as a precaution, allowing for a quick getaway had it been necessary, NASA said.

The research lab, orbiting about 402 kilometres above Earth, continued to pass through or near the debris cluster every 90 minutes, but NASA specialists determined it was safe for the crew to return to the station's interior after the third pass, the agency said.

The crew was also ordered to seal off hatches to several modules of the space station for the time being, according to NASA.

WATCH | ISS astronauts forced to seek shelter: 

ISS astronauts forced to seek shelter in docked capsules

9 months ago
Duration 1:55
German astronaut Matthias Maurer was told to move his sleeping bag from the International Space Station's European lab to a safer location Monday as orbiting fields of space junk disrupted the work of the seven crew members and forced them to seek shelter in their docked capsules.

"NASA will continue monitoring the debris in the coming days and beyond to ensure the safety of our crew in orbit," NASA chief Bill Nelson said in a statement.

Experts say the testing of weapons that shatter satellites in orbit poses a hazard by creating clouds of fragments that can collide with other objects, setting off a chain reaction of projectiles through Earth orbit.

Thousands of fragments

The Russian military and ministry of defence were not immediately available for comment.

The direct-ascent anti-satellite missile fired by Russia generated more than 1,500 pieces of "trackable orbital debris" and would likely spawn hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments, the U.S. Space Command said in a statement.

"Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations," space command chief U.S. army Gen. James Dickinson said.

The debris from the missile test "will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance manoeuvres," he said.

WATCH | How astronauts coped with the emergency: 

Astronauts bond as orbiting space junk threatens International Space Station

9 months ago
Duration 1:08
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei thanked mission control for helping those aboard the International Space Station handle orbiting debris fields of space junk, calling it a great way for the crew to come together. Four of the seven crew members arrived at the orbiting outpost Thursday night.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the missile test as "reckless and irresponsible." At the Pentagon, spokesman John Kirby said the test showed the need to firmly establish norms of behaviour in space.

"It is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts," Nelson said.

The incident came just four days after the latest group of four space station astronauts — Americans Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron of NASA and European Space Agency crewmate Matthias Maurer of Germany — arrived at the orbiting outpost to begin a six-month science mission.

They were welcomed by three space station crew members already on board — Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, and U.S. astronaut Mark Vande Hei.

Russia is not the first country to conduct anti-satellite tests in space. The United States performed the first in 1959, when satellites were rare and new.

Last April Russia carried out another test of an anti-satellite missile as officials have said that space will increasingly become an important domain for warfare.

In 2019, India shot down one of its own satellites in low-Earth orbit with a ground-to-space missile.

The U.S. military is increasingly dependent on satellites to determine what it does on the ground, guiding munitions with space-based lasers and satellites, as well as using such assets to monitor for missile launches and track its forces.

These tests have also raised questions about the long-term sustainability of space operations essential to a huge range of commercial activities, including banking and GPS services.