Russia’s irresponsible ASAT Test

November 16, 2021 7:11 PM

Russia has destroyed their own 2000 kg satellite, which had lived its life. Actually, the satellite was launched by the Soviet Union on September 16, 1982. The satellite called Cosmos 1408 was a Soviet ELINT (Electronic and Signals Intelligence) satellite.

Subsequently, there were reports of Russia working on a technology, where a fighter aircraft like MiG-31 would be firing an anti-satellite missile.

By Dr Ajey Lele

It has been reported that Russia has conducted an anti-satellite test (ASAT) on Nov 15, 2021. The test is known to have generated around 1500 pieces of detectable (trackable) debris in low earth orbit and in addition hundreds of thousands of very small pieces of space debris. The test has come as an unpleasant surprise and has raised much concern about space security.

Russia has destroyed their own 2000 kg satellite, which had lived its life. Actually, the satellite was launched by the Soviet Union on September 16, 1982. The satellite called Cosmos 1408 was a Soviet ELINT (Electronic and Signals Intelligence) satellite. The satellite when last tracked was in an orbit about 485km high. It is expected that the satellite has been destroyed around the same height. Russia used a direct-ascent anti-satellite, or DA-ASAT missile to destroy this satellite. This is the same technique used both by China and India during their ASAT tests in 2007 and 2019 respectively. It is important to note that China had conducted the test at an altitude of 865 km, while India had destroyed its own satellite at an altitude of around 280 km. Since India had conducted the test in low altitude more than 95% of debris created had entered into the earth’s atmosphere owing to gravitational pull and burnt off. The debris created by China is still there and now the debris created by the Russian test will also remain in space for many decades to come.

Presently, the International Space Station (ISS) is located at around 400 km above the earth’s surface. Unfortunately, now the ISS has come under a threat because of this test. It has been observed that the station continues to pass through a debris field every 90 minutes. It is actually baffling how Russia conducts this test, when there are seven people staying at ISS and two amongst them are Russian cosmonauts. All seven were forced to take refuge within their Soyuz and Dragon vehicles docked to the space station owing to this satellite killing mission by Russia. The Chinese space station is also orbiting between 340 and 450 km with three astronauts on-board.

It is not clear why Russia had to conduct this test. This is because they have already demonstrated their counter-space capabilities some decades back. The Soviet Union had started exploring anti-satellite weapons (counter-space capabilities) during the 1950s. They had conducted the first test of an ASAT system in 1963. It was a ‘co-orbital’ technique which got tested. For this purpose a ‘killer satellite’ gets launched and made to enter the same orbit of the satellite, which is to be destroyed. Around 20 such tests were conducted with some successes and some failures. Possibly, this co-orbital ASAT system was decommissioned by Russia in 1993. Subsequently, there were reports of Russia working on a technology, where a fighter aircraft like MiG-31 would be firing an anti-satellite missile.

Today, the activity in space is increasing manifold. From commutations to navigation to remote sensing to military satellites, the launch frequency is increasing day by day. On routine basics, commercial space launches are also happening. The frequency of private citizens visiting space for recreational purposes is going to increase in the near future. The low earth orbit is fast becoming the most active orbit with constellations of small satellites getting launched for the purposes of internet services. Against this backdrop adding more space debris is not in the interest of anybody, including Russia.

At the geopolitical level, Russia is at loggerheads with both the US and EU. The Belarus-Poland migrants issue is getting murkier. Russia’s troop’s build-up and the crisis along the border with Ukraine are continuing. It is definitely not a time to open another front at this point in time and that too in the outer space domain. Actually, for all these years Russia had set an example by collaborating with the US on the ISS project. Both the states had demonstrated that the problems on earth should not stop states from collaborating in space. But, now by doing this reckless act Russia has increased the possibility of satellites (including their own) getting harmed by the space debris.

(The author is Senior Fellow, MP-IDSA, New Delhi. He can be reached at: ajey.lele@gmail.com Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).)

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