Astronauts Take Cover After Space Debris From Russian Missile Test Threatens Space Station; Check What Happened

New Delhi: It was past midnight in India when news about it started coming and most of us had, perhaps, gone to sleep.

The seven astronauts currently onboard the International Space Station had to scramble for safety after encountering a cloud of space debris passing by the station every 90 minutes, the time it takes for the ISS to orbit the Earth.

NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, Kayla Barron and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Matthias Maurer scrambled into their SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft docked to the ISS.

Russian cosmonauts Shkaplerov, Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei retreated into the Soyuz spacecraft docked to the Russian segment of the ISS.

The two spacecraft would have detached from the space station and made an emergency return to Earth in the event of the ISS colliding with the debris. The Crew Dragon and Soyuz capsules always remain docked to the ISS in case the crew need a rapid “lifeboat” escape.

Thankfully, that situation did not arise and later the astronauts were cleared to return to the space station.

US officials later confirmed that an anti-satellite weapon test (ASAT) by Russia created the debris cloud that prompted the ISS’s crew to take cover in the Crew Dragon and Soyuz capsules early Monday as a precaution.

US Space Command confirmed later 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 risk to the crew on the International Space Station and other human spaceflight activities.”

Mission Control in Houston woke up the space station’s crew to warn them of the possible encounter with satellite debris, advised them to close as many of the hatches onboard the ISS and retreat into the Crew Dragon and Soyuz capsules.

The crew were told to close hatches between the US and Russian segments and seal off modules extending radially from the lab’s long axis — the ESA’s Columbus module, Japan’s Kibo, the US Quest airlock and NASA’s Tranquility module.

“We are a minute and a half from the next debris field transit at this point,” a mission controller told the astronauts during one pass, according to audio from the live feed recorded by “This is going to be a four-minute transit.”

The crew were later cleared to enter the ISS and reopen hatches.

“Thanks for a crazy but well-coordinated day,” Vande Hei said over the ISS live feed to mission controllers. “We really appreciate all the situational awareness you gave us, and it was certainly a great way to bond as a crew starting off with our very first work day in space.”

“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.”

“Earlier today, the Russian Federation recklessly conducted a destructive satellite test of a direct ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a briefing.

“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.”

“This test will significantly increase the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station, as well as to other human spaceflight activities,” he said.

“The US will work with our partners and allies to respond to their irresponsible act.”

When asked whether Russia gave advance notice about the test, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said, “No.”

The target of Russia’s ASAT test appears to be the Russian satellite, Kosmos-1408. A spy satellite launched in 1982, it had ceased working many years ago. A ground-to-space missile destroyed this satellite, creating the debris, experts believe.

Kosmos-1408 had an orbit above the ISS and debris from the missile strike that destroyed it could fall in altitude threatening the ISS. Harvard University astronomer Jonathan McDowell tweeted that Kosmos-1408 was a “plausible candidate” for the debris cloud.

Several countries have the ability to take out satellites from the ground.

China destroyed one of its retired weather satellites in 2007, creating more than 2,000 pieces of debris.

In fact, the ISS had to manoeuvre and raise its orbit last week to avoid debris from that satellite.

In 2019, India also conducted its own ASAT test, destroying a decaying satellite.

The US also conducted an ASAT test in 2008, but it did so to destroy a satellite that was falling out of orbit and posed a possible danger to people and property on Earth.

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