Russia denies endangering astronauts on International Space Station with space junk

·2-min read
Artist’s impression released in September of debris field in low-Earth orbit (ESA/AFP via Getty Images)
Artist’s impression released in September of debris field in low-Earth orbit (ESA/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia has rejected accusations it endangered astronauts aboard the International Space Station by conducting a weapons test that created more than 1,500 pieces of space junk.

US officials accused Russia of destroying an old satellite with a missile in what they called a reckless and irresponsible strike.

NATO’s chief backed their assessment the debris could damage the space station.

Four Americans, one German and two Russians were on board the ISS and ordered to immediately seek shelter in their docked capsules once the situation became clear on Monday morning.

After two hours in the capsules, they emerged only to have to close and reopen hatches to the station’s individual labs on every orbit as they passed near or through the space debris.

Even a fleck of paint can do major damage when orbiting at 17,500 mph and large objects could be catastrophic upon impact.

UK Space Command has criticised Russia for conducting the test and Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey described the action as “irresponsible”.

International Space Station photographed by Expedition 56 crew members from a Soyuz spacecraft (REUTERS)
International Space Station photographed by Expedition 56 crew members from a Soyuz spacecraft (REUTERS)

Astronauts now face four times greater risk than normal from space junk, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.

The defunct Russian satellite Cosmos 1408 was orbiting around 40 miles higher than the space station.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the test clearly demonstrates Russia “is willing to imperil the exploration and use of outer space by all nations through its reckless and irresponsible behaviour”.

Russia‘s Defense Ministry said remarks by US officials were “hypocritical.”

US Senator Bill Nelson (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
US Senator Bill Nelson (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

It confirmed on Tuesday it had conducted a test and destroyed a defunct satellite that had been in orbit since 1982.

But it insisted that “the US knows for certain that the resulting fragments, in terms of test time and orbital parameters, did not and will not pose a threat.”

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the strike was carried out “with surgical precision” and posed no threat to the space station.

The Russian space agency Roscosmos would not confirm or deny the strike took place and said only the “unconditional safety of the crew has remains our main priority”.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg agreed Russia‘s actions endangered the space station.

“This was a reckless act by Russia to actually shoot down and destroy a satellite as part of a test of an anti-satellite weapons system,” Stoltenberg said.

There were fears that the International Space Station would fly through the debris field after the missile test (Nasa/PA) (PA Media)
There were fears that the International Space Station would fly through the debris field after the missile test (Nasa/PA) (PA Media)

He explained it was a concern “because it demonstrates that Russia is now developing new weapons systems that can shoot down the satellites, can destroy important space capabilities for basic infrastructure on Earth, like communications, like navigation, or like early warning of missile launches”.

The German Foreign Ministry also said it was “very concerned” by the test which it said resulted in “additional risks” for the astronauts on the ISS.

“This irresponsible behavior carries a high risk of miscalculations and escalation,” the ministry said.

They added the test underlines the urgency of an international agreement on rules for the peaceful use of space.

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