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Satellite debris forces space station crew to take shelter; U.S. blames "reckless" Russian missile test

ISS astronauts take refuge from cloud of space junk
ISS astronauts scramble to safety after Russian weapons test 01:10

U.S. officials say Russia destroyed a retired satellite in an anti-satellite weapon test, creating a cloud of debris that prompted the seven-member crew of the International Space Station to take shelter in their Crew Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft early Monday as a precaution.

"I'm outraged by this unconscionable action," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. "With its long and storied history in human spaceflight, it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts.

"Their actions are both reckless and dangerous, not even to speak of the threat to the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board."

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Russian Federation "recklessly conducted a destructive satellite test of a direct ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites."

"The test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations."

The International Space Station Roscosmos

He said the ASAT 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," Price said.

He added that the United States will work with its allies and partners "to respond to Russia's irresponsible act," but did not indicate what sort of response might be made.

Flight controllers in Houston woke up the space station crew overnight to inform them of the possible close encounter, or "conjunction," with satellite debris.

"Station on space-to-ground 2 for an early wakeup," mission control called. "We were recently informed of a satellite breakup and need to have you guys start reviewing the safe haven procedure."

The crew was told to close hatches between the U.S. and Russian segments and to seal off modules extending radially from the lab's long axis, which includes the European Space Agency's Columbus module, Japan's Kibo, the U.S. Quest airlock and NASA's Tranquility module.

"Because of the nature of the satellite breakup, we expect that we would see this risk every 90 minutes," mission control radioed. "And while the teams on the ground are analyzing the situation, we expect we could be staying in the config with the radial hatches closed for up to a day."

After sheltering in their respective spacecraft during the initial close approach period, the crew members were cleared to return to the station's interior and reopen hatches between the U.S. and Russian segments. The U.S. crew was allowed to briefly open side-hatches as needed between possible encounters.

"Thanks for a crazy but well-coordinated day," astronaut Mark Vande Hei said during an end-of-day planning conference with flight controllers in Houston. "We really appreciate all the situational awareness you gave us. And it was certainly a great way to bond as a crew starting off in our very first work day in space!"

Vande Hei and Soyuz MS-19/65S crewmates Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov were joined last Thursday by four fresh crew members who arrived aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon ferry ship.

"We really appreciate you guys' patience," mission control replied to Vande Hei. "It's a crazy way to start a mission, we definitely understand, and you guys were troopers through all this. We really appreciate it."

Said Vande Hei: "We're looking forward to a calmer day tomorrow."

U.K.-based Seradata, which operates the commercial SpaceTrak satellite database, reported earlier the breakup appeared to involve Cosmos 1408, a long-retired Russian electronic eavesdropping spacecraft in polar orbit.

U.S. Space Command confirmed that later in the day, saying that along with 1,500 pieces of trackable debris the test "will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris." The initial assessment "is that the debris will remain in orbit for years and potentially for decades, posing a significant rick to the crew on the International Space Station and other human spaceflight activities."

Army General James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, said the test demonstrated "a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations."

"The debris created by Russia's (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 maneuvers," he said. "Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible."

U.S. radar systems constantly track objects in low-Earth orbit and compute possible close approaches between spacecraft, prioritizing piloted vehicles like the space station.

Depending on how close to the lab a piece of debris is predicted to pass, the crew can be asked to take shelter in their respective spacecraft, ready to make a quick return-to-Earth in case of an impact.

During Monday's encounter, Shkaplerov, Dubrov and Vande Hei sheltered in place in their Soyuz MS-19/65S spacecraft. The newly arrived Crew Dragon astronauts — Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and Matthias Maurer — sheltered in their "Endurance" capsule at the forward end of the space station.

The Russian ASAT test is the latest in a series of exercises to perfect weapons capable of disabling or destroying an adversary's satellites.

China destroyed a defunct weather satellite in 2007 that produced a cloud of debris that continues to threaten other spacecraft, including the ISS.

The United States destroyed a failed satellite in 2008 ostensibly to prevent toxic hydrazine rocket fuel from reaching the ground. Russia has conducted several such tests and India destroyed one of its satellites in 2019.

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