Russian Anti-Satellite Test Produces Dangerous Debris Cloud In Orbit (Updated)

U.S. Space Command has confirmed a "debris-generating event," which now presents a potential risk to the International Space Station.

A graphical depiction of all of the objects currently orbiting the Earth.
NASA

Russia may have just conducted an anti-satellite weapon test. These reports are based on the apparent breakup of a satellite known as Kosmos-1408, part of a long-defunct Soviet-era electronic intelligence constellation, which has now created a cloud of debris that could threaten the International Space Station.

It's unclear exactly when this test may have occurred, but the first reports began to appear online earlier today. There has been no official word so far from Russian authorities. When reached for comment, U.S. Space Force redirected us to U.S. Space Command, which has issued press releases after Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon tests in the past. 

The video below shows a past test of Russia's A-235 Nudol, a ballistic missile interceptor with anti-satellite capabilities.

"U.S. Space Command is aware of a debris-generating event in outer space," Space Command subsequently told The War Zone in a statement that did not specifically say this incident was the result of an ASAT test. "We are actively working to characterize the debris field and will continue to ensure all space-faring nations have the information necessary to maneuver satellites if impacted. We are also in the process of working with the interagency, including the State Department and NASA, concerning these reports and will provide an update in the near future."

However, experts and observers have said that there are indications that this was an ASAT test. 

"ASAT missile strike now suspected. Seradata SpaceTrak database orbital data had Cosmos 1408 in a 487 x 461 km orbit - a bit higher than ISS but not much," read a Tweet from the official Twitter account for Seradata, a private space data-analysis company. "The ASAT strike on Cosmos 1408 would cause some debris to be fired below it ... threatening ISS with a crossing debris cloud."

"Reports coming through of ASAT (Anti-satellite) test by Russia on one of its own satellites Cosmos 1408 (Kosmos-1408) (1982-092A/13552)," an earlier Tweet from the company said. "14 pieces of debris tracked so far."

Whatever caused this new debris may now have put the International Space Station (ISS) at risk. Before news of a possible ASAT test appeared on social media, there were separate reports that personnel on the ISS have been warned about a debris cloud, which may have forced them into a docked spacecraft that they could use to escape in an emergency, according to The New York Times' Joey Roulette.

Kosmos-1408 was a Tselina-D satellite launched in 1982. "The Tselina-D (11F619) was one component of the two-satellite Tselina electronic intelligence satellite system. Tselina-D provided detailed observation of radio sources detected by the smaller Tselina-O satellites," according to Gunter's Space Page, which is maintained by space expert Gunter Krebs.

The Tselina constellation has been out of service for decades, having been replaced by improved Tselina-2 satellites that the Soviets began launching in the mid-1980s.

"No further details so far, but it appears that a ground based missile was used, not a co-orbital-ASAT like the earlier soviet ASAT systems," Krebs tweeted, stressing that he could not independently confirm if this had been the case. 

Russia certainly does have land-based ASAT interceptors. However, they have at least been testing air-launched types, as well as co-orbital weapons mounted on other satellites. 

Space Command accused the Kremlin of carrying out two "direct-ascent" ASAT tests, typically understood to involve ground-launched interceptors, in 2020. Last year, Space Force separately disclosed that it had observed at least one on-orbit ASAT test. That revelation came after reports, including from The War Zone, that a small Russian satellite had maneuvered very closely to an American intelligence satellite and was shadowing it.

VIA @M_R_THOMP

A graphical representation of the position of the Russian satellite Cosmos 2542 with regard to the American satellite USA 245 in January 2020.

That satellite "behaved similar to previous Russian satellites that exhibited characteristics of a space weapon, conducted maneuvers near a U.S. Government satellite that would be interpreted as irresponsible and potentially threatening in any other domain," according to a press release from Space Command in April 2020. A subsequent statement from that command in December 2020 described the event as having actually "demonstrated an on-orbit kinetic [ASAT] weapon."

DIA

An infographic depicting the various ways in which one satellite might attack another in orbit.

If Russia did indeed deliberately destroy Kosmos-1408 in an ASAT test, it would only further underscore how real this threat is now and how it will only become more of an issue as time goes on. Earlier this month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that President Vladimir Putin had ordered the development of new air and missile defense system known as the S-550. 

It is unclear what this S-550 system might be. A Soviet-era design with that same nomenclature, which never came to fruition, was intended to be used against intercontinental ballistic missiles, possibly in the midcourse portions of their flights when they are flying very fast and at extremely high altitudes in space. Any such missile-defense interceptor would inherently have potential as an ASAT weapon, and Russian state media reports have now indicated this new S-550 is expected to be dual-purpose.

China, among others, is in the process of developing and fielding its own various anti-satellite capabilities. For potential American adversaries, this all makes good sense, as the U.S. military and intelligence community are heavily dependent on space-based systems for intelligence gathering, as well as a variety of other functions, including early warning, navigation and weapons guidance, and communications, and data-sharing.

Beyond all this, the potential risk to the ISS from this debris would also highlight the dangers posed simply by testing ASAT weapons. Whether or not American or Russian officials eventually confirm that an ASAT test occurred, hopefully any risks to the ISS and any other objects in space will turn out to be minimal.

We will update this story as more information becomes available.

Updated 1:25 PM EST:

CNN is now reporting the U.S. State Department is planning later today to issue a statement that American officials have assessed that Russia did conduct an ASAT test sometime in the past few days. 

In the meantime, other evidence that this "debris-generating event" was an ASAT test is growing. A previously issued warning notice to airmen and mariners said that a potential rocket launch could occur early on Nov. 15 from Russia's Plesetsk Cosmodrome, which is used for space launches and missile tests. Experts and observers have noted that the apparent path of this prospective launch would align well with Kosmos-1408's orbit.

More details about the debris cloud are also emerging. However, it may take some time for all of the newly created objects to be identified and cataloged.

Updated 2:15 PM EST:

LeoLabs, a space debris tracking and collision prevention services firm, says it has detected at least 30 new objects near where Kosmos-1408 would be expected to be if it had continued along its known orbit.

Separately, The New York Times is now reporting that Space Command may be tracking at least another thousand objects in space as a result of this apparent Russian ASAT test.

Updated 2:40 PM EST:

U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price has now officially said that the U.S. government has assessed that Russia did conduct an ASAT test that resulted in the destruction of one of its satellites in orbit. He described the test as "reckless" and said that it involved the use of a direct-ascent interceptor.

"The test has so far generated over 1500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of 1000s of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations," Price said at a press conference today. "This test will significantly increase the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station, as well as to other human spaceflight activities."

"Russia's dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of outer space and clearly demonstrates that Russia's claims of opposing the weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical," he continued. "The United States will work with our allies and partners to respond to Russia's irresponsible act."

"We as you know, don't telegraph specific measures, but as I said before, we will work with our allies and partners in different ways to make clear that the United States that the international community is not going to tolerate this kind of irresponsible behavior," he said in response to a subsequent question from a member of the press.

At a separate press conference, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said that "we share the concern that our State Department colleagues stressed" regarding the Russian ASAT test.

Updated 5:10 PM EST:

U.S. Space Command now issued its own statement about the recent Russian ASAT test, which is as follows:

Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile test on Nov. 15, 2021, Moscow Standard Time, that struck a Russian satellite [COSMOS 1408] and created a debris field in low-Earth orbit. The test so far has generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris.

“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” said U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, U.S. Space Command commander. “The debris created by Russia's DA-ASAT 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 maneuvers. Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”

USSPACECOM's initial assessment is that the debris will remain in orbit for years and potentially for decades, posing a significant risk to the crew on the International Space Station and other human spaceflight activities, as well as multiple countries' satellites. USSPACECOM continues to monitor the trajectory of the debris and will work to ensure all space-faring nations have the information necessary to safeguard their on-orbit activities if impacted by the debris cloud, a service the United States provides to the world, to include Russia and China.

“Russia is developing and deploying capabilities to actively deny access to and use of space by the United States and its allies and partners,” Dickinson added. “Russia's tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons clearly demonstrate that Russia continues to pursue counterspace weapon systems that undermine strategic stability and pose a threat to all nations.”

Updated 6:35 PM EST:

Marcia Smith, editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com has posted a statement from NASA regarding Russia's ASAT test on Twitter, which includes direct quotes from Administrator Bill Nelson, who says he is "outraged." The statement also confirms various details about actions personnel onboard the ISS had to take to mitigate potential risks from the debris cloud, including sheltering in place in the docked spacecraft.

Updated 11/16/2021:

Russia's Defense Ministry has finally confirmed that it conducted an ASAT test on Nov. 15. "We have indeed successfully tested a future system. It destroyed an old satellite with pinpoint accuracy," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

The Kremlin has rejected the assertion that doing so created significant risks to the ISS and other spacecraft from the resulting debris cloud, despite clear evidence that this was and remains the case. Russia's own space agency, Roscosmos, had earlier issued a statement that it was monitoring the debris in order to "prevent and counter all possible threats to the safety" to the ISS.

"The United States knows for certain that the emerging fragments at the time of the test and in terms of the orbit’s parameters did not and will not pose any threat to orbital stations, satellites and space activity," the Defense Ministry's statement declared. "Earlier, such tests in outer space were already conducted by the United States, China, and India."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said earlier that there "were no facts" to the U.S. government's claims. This statement seems to have been in response to American accusations about the resulting debris field, though it initially appeared that Lavrov was denying the ASAT test had taken place at all. 

  Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com