Russian Anti-Satellite Test Produces Dangerous Debris Cloud In Orbit: Reports

Russia may have just conducted an anti-satellite weapon test. These reports are based on the apparent breakup of a satellite known as Kosmos-1408, part of a long-defunct Soviet-era electronic intelligence constellation, which has now created a cloud of debris that could threaten the International Space Station.

It’s unclear exactly when this test may have occurred, but the first reports began to emerge online earlier today. There has been no official word so far from Russian authorities. When reached for comment, U.S. Space Force redirected us to U.S. Space Command, which has issued press releases after Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon tests in the past. 

The video below shows a past test of Russia’s A-235 Nudol, a ballistic missile interceptor with anti-satellite capabilities.

“U.S. Space Command is aware of a debris-generating event in outer space,” Space Command told The War Zone in a subsequent statement that did not specifically say this incident was the result of an ASAT test. “We are actively working to characterize the debris field and will continue to ensure all space-faring nations have the information necessary to maneuver satellites if impacted. We are also in the process of working with the interagency, including the State Department and NASA, concerning these reports and will provide an update in the near future.”

However, experts and observers have said that there are indications that this was an ASAT test. 

“ASAT missile strike now suspected. Seradata SpaceTrak database orbital data had Cosmos 1408 in a 487 x 461 km orbit – a bit higher than ISS but not much,” read a Tweet from the official Twitter account for Seradata, a private space data analysis company. “The ASAT strike on Cosmos 1408 would cause some debris to be fired below it…threatening ISS with a crossing debris cloud.”

“Reports coming through of ASAT (Anti-satellite) test by Russia on one of its own satellites Cosmos 1408 (Kosmos-1408) (1982-092A/13552),” an earlier Tweet from the company said. “14 pieces of debris tracked so far.”

Whatever caused this new debris may now have put the International Space Station (ISS) at risk. Before news of a possible ASAT test appeared on social media, there were separate reports that personnel on the ISS have been warned about a debris cloud, which may have forced them into a docked spacecraft that they could use to escape in an emergency, according to The New York Times‘ Joey Roulette.

Kosmos-1408 was a Tselina-D satellite launched in 1982. “The Tselina-D (11F619) was one component of two-satellite Tselina ELINT satellite system. Tselina-D provided detailed observation of radio sources detected by the smaller Tselina-O satellites.” according to Gunter’s Space Page, which is maintained by space expert Gunter Krebs.

The Tselina constellation has been out of service for decades, having been replaced by improved Tselina-2 satellites that the Soviets began launching in the mid-1980s.

“No further details so far, but it appears that a ground based missile was used, not a co-orbital-ASAT like the earlier soviet ASAT systems,” Gunter Krebs wrote on Twitter, stressing that he could not independently confirm that this had been the case. 

Russia certainly does have land-based ASAT interceptors. However, they have at least been testing air-launched types, as well as other co-orbital weapons mounted on other satellites. 

Space Command accused the Kremlin of carrying out two “direct-ascent” ASAT tests, typically understood to involve ground-launched interceptors, in 2020. Last year, Space Force separately disclosed that it had observed at least one on-orbit ASAT test. That revelation came after reports, including from The War Zone, that a small Russian satellite had maneuvered very closely to an American intelligence satellite and was shadowing it.

VIA @M_R_THOMP
A graphical representation of the position of the Russian satellite Cosmos 2542 with regards to the American satellite USA 245 in January 2020.

That satellite “behaved similar to previous Russian satellites that exhibited characteristics of a space weapon, conducted maneuvers near a U.S. Government satellite that would be interpreted as irresponsible and potentially threatening in any other domain,” according to a press release from Space Command in April 2020. A subsequent statement from that Command in December 2020 described the event as having actually “demonstrated an on-orbit kinetic [ASAT] weapon.”

DIA
An infographic depicting the various ways in which one satellite might attack another in orbit.

If Russia did indeed deliberately destroy Kosmos-1408 in an ASAT test, it would only further underscore how real this threat is now and how it will only become more of an issue as time goes on. Earlier this month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that President Vladimir Putin had ordered the development of new air and missile defense system known as the S-550. 

It is unclear what this S-550 system might be. A Soviet-era design with that same nomenclature, which never came to fruition was intended to be used against intercontinental ballistic missiles, possibly in the midcourse portions of their flights when they are flying very fast and at extremely high altitudes in space. Any such missile defense interceptor would inherently have potential as ASAT weapon and Russian state media reports have now indicated this new S-550 is expected to be dual-purpose.

China, among others, is in the process of developing and fielding its own various anti-satellite capabilities. For potential American adversaries, this all makes good sense, as the U.S. military and Intelligence Community are heavily dependent on space-based systems for intelligence gathering, as well as a variety of other functions, including early warning, navigation and weapons guidance, and communications and data-sharing.

Beyond all this, the potential risk to the ISS from this debris would also highlight the dangers posed simply by testing ASAT weapons. Whether or not American or Russian officials eventually confirm that an ASAT test occurred, hopefully any risks to the ISS and any other objects in space will turn out to be minimal.

We will update this story as more information becomes available.

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