November 28, 2021

UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING – How Russian anti-satellite fire resulted in the containment of ISS astronauts

The seven astronauts on board the International Space Station were forced to confine themselves before finally resuming their occupations.

Fright in weightlessness. On Monday, the seven astronauts on the International Space Station – four Americans, a German replacement for Thomas Pesquet and two Russian cosmonauts – were forced to take cover after the ISS was repeatedly grazed by a cloud tens of thousands of space debris. The alert had been given by the Russian Roscosmos agency which reported the presence of these objects that could potentially come into contact with the aircraft and cause major damage.

• Where does this cloud of debris come from?

According to the first observations, this cloud would come from an anti-satellite missile firing test by Russia. Asked by AFP, astronomer Jonathan McDowell estimates, deducing from the trajectories of the ISS and known objects, that the destroyed device could be a satellite called Cosmos 1408, launched during the time of the USSR but which did not has been more active since the 1980s.

“Destroying it was absolutely not necessary”, judged the specialist. “This is a purely military test.”

According to Ned Price, spokesman for the US State Department, this destruction has “generated more than 1,500 traceable orbital debris, and hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces that now threaten the interests of all nations.”

In a statement released shortly after, NASA stressed that the Space Station had passed “through or near the cloud (of debris, editor’s note) every 90 minutes.”

It was during the second and third passages, between around 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. French time, that the passengers on board took refuge in their vessels, moored at the station, in order to prepare for a possible emergency evacuation. If the latter were able to resume their place within the ISS, many hatches are currently closed between different modules as a precautionary measure.

“Friends, everything is in order with us. We continue the work according to our program”, reassured on Twitter the Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, who does not mention the origin of the debris.

• What were the reactions?

The condemnations are unanimous. In a statement on Monday, US Foreign Minister Antony Blinken stressed that “Russia irresponsibly conducted a destructive direct-ascension anti-satellite missile test against one of its own satellites.”

Bill Nelson, the boss of NASA, said he was “scandalized” by this missile fire. “It is unthinkable that Russia endangers not only American astronauts and international partners in the ISS, but also its own cosmonauts,” he said in a statement.

“I am outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action.”

For its part, the Russian space agency also echoed the incident, without however mentioning the shooting.

“The object’s orbit, which forced the crew today to travel to the spacecraft using standard procedures, has moved away from the orbit of the ISS,” Roscosmos tweeted.

Faced with the accusations, Moscow assured on Tuesday that “the safety of the crew” of the International Space Station was its “main priority.” “Only joint efforts of all space powers will be able to ensure as safe a coexistence as possible and the continuation of operations in the space field,” Roscosmos said in a statement.

• What are the short and medium term consequences?

Anti-satellite fire has already been carried out, but by only four nations: the United States, China, India and Russia. They are highly criticized because of the large amount of debris generated, which becomes dangerous projectiles.

They can then strike the thousands of other satellites in orbit, on which countries rely for a large number of activities, for example communication or even localization.

“The debris created by this dangerous and irresponsible test will now threaten for decades to come satellites and other space objects vital to the security, economy and scientific interests of other nations,” Blinken accused.

He promised that the United States would “work with (their) allies and partners to seek to respond to this irresponsible act”.

In addition, Jonathan McDowell for his part announced that some of this debris should disintegrate on entering the atmosphere “in the coming months”, while for others, this destruction will come only after ten years.

The Pentagon said it was “actively working to characterize the debris field.” This involves in particular identifying the trajectory of each of the objects, in order to estimate the potential collision threats.

• What is the ISS evacuation procedure?

In case of danger, the International Space Station must be able to be evacuated in less than four hours, says The world, stressing that this period runs from the decision to evacuate until landing. In this situation, the ISS can be fully directed from the ground while the occupants are ordered to take place on board emergency capsules, like this Monday.

Permanently, two Soyuz vessels are docked to the ISS. They must be used to transport passengers at the end of each mission. However, in an emergency, these can also be used to return to Earth early.

Since the 1990s, NASA has been trying to move forward on the project of a vehicle named Crew Return Vehicle, which could accommodate up to seven people. It should serve, as the European Space Agency website explains, “as a space ambulance, lifeboat and alternative return vehicle for the crew of the International Space Station.”

• What are the precedents?

While the facts of the past few hours are impressive, they are not unique. In 2011, the ISS had already been emergency evacuated after space debris had passed within 250 meters of it. In March 2009, the ISS crew had also been ordered to take shelter aboard a Soyuz for the same reasons.

More recently, during a routine operation on May 12, the passengers of the ISS, including Thomas Pesquet, discovered that a robotic arm attached to the device had been slightly damaged, precisely by one of the this orbital debris. “Space can be a difficult and ruthless environment for the robots and the humans who explore it”, indicated then a press release from the Canadian Space Agency.

The hole in the arm of the ISS
The hole in the arm of the ISS © NASA / Canadian Space Agency

“The threat of collision is taken very seriously. NASA has a long-standing set of guidelines to ensure the safety of the station’s crew. The safety of the astronauts aboard the orbital laboratory remains everyone’s top priority. the partners of the Station “, we also learned in this same document.