• Otávio Santiago

Russia just blew up a satellite—here’s why that spells trouble for spaceflight



Early on November 15 astronauts aboard the International Space Station received an unexpected directive: Seek shelter in your docked spacecraft in case of a catastrophic collision. The station was about to pass through a freshly created cloud of orbital debris that posed a significant risk to the seven space travelers on board.


Four NASA astronauts, who had arrived just last week retreated, to their SpaceX Dragon capsule, while Russia’s two cosmonauts and another NASA astronaut took cover in their Soyuz spacecraft. They stayed inside these orbital lifeboats for about two hours, then repeated the exercise roughly 90 minutes later, as the station again passed through the new debris cloud. NASA has since canceled a handful of planned activities, warning that the schedule would be in flux.


“It’s a crazy way to start a mission,” mission control told the crew during a briefing.

The U.S. State Department later confirmed that the debris endangering the space station was produced when Russia tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon and intentionally destroyed one of its own defunct satellites. The impact left behind hundreds of thousands of debris objects that now pose a risk to the ISS crew and other satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO).


“Even though we know they have this capability, we were shocked that they chose to test it as they did,” says Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The test shredded a satellite whose orbit intersects with the path of the ISS, putting the humans on board, including Russian cosmonauts, at risk.

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