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Russian anti-satellite weapon test: What happened and what are the risks?


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On Nov. 15, 2021, U.S. officials announced that they had detected a dangerous new debris field in orbit near Earth. Later in the day, it was confirmed that Russia had destroyed one of its old satellites in a test of an anti-satellite weapon. Wendy Whitman Cobb is a space security researcher. She explains what these weapons are and why the debris they create is a problem now – and in the future.

What do we know?

Russia launched an anti-satellite test that destroyed one of its older satellites. The satellite broke up and created thousands of pieces of debris in orbit, ranging in size from tiny specks up to pieces a few feet across. This space junk will linger in orbit for years, potentially colliding with other satellites as well as the International Space Station. The space station crew has already had to shelter in place as they passed near the debris cloud.

Many anti-satellite weapons are missiles launched from the ground, like this U.S. ASM-135 ASAT.

What’s an anti-satellite weapon?

Anti-satellite weapons, commonly referred to as ASATs, are any weapon that can temporarily impair or permanently destroy an orbiting satellite. The one that Russia just tested is known as a direct ascent kinetic anti-satellite weapon. These are usually launched from the ground or from the wings of an airplane and destroy satellites by running into them at high speeds.

A similar weapon type, called co-orbital anti-satellite weapons, are first launched into orbit and then change direction to collide with the targeted satellite from space.

On Nov. 15, 2021, U.S. officials announced that they had detected a dangerous new debris field in orbit near Earth. Later in the day, it was confirmed that Russia had destroyed one of its old satellites in a test of an anti-satellite weapon. Wendy Whitman Cobb is a space security researcher. She explains what these weapons are and why the debris they create is a problem now – and in the future.

Debris from a single destroyed satellite can spread out rapidly, as seen in this image showing the orbits of debris from a Chinese satellite one month after it was destroyed in 2007

Why is debris a problem?

Regardless of the cause, space debris is a serious problem.

Larger pieces are easier to track and avoid but it’s difficult to track pieces smaller than 4 inches (10 centimeters). Even small debris can still pose a major threat though. Space debris is often traveling faster than 17,000 mph around the Earth. At that speed, pieces of debris could destroy any spacecraft or satellite it collided with. In the 1980s, a Soviet satellite broke up as a result of a suspected debris strike.

More worrisome is the danger debris poses to crewed space missions. In July 2021, one of the International Space Station’s robotic arms was struck by a piece of debris that put a 0.2-inch (0.5 cm) hole clean through a part of the arm. While the damage did not need to be fixed, officials characterized it as a lucky strike – if it had struck a different part of the station, the situation could have been a lot worse.

Space debris is also a significant threat to people on Earth. Satellites play a vital role in the global economy through GPS, communications and weather data. If services such as these were disrupted, there would be significant economic cost. One study found that a GPS outage could cost the U.S. up to $1 billion a day.

There are currently thousands of pieces of space junk circling the Earth, with sources as varied as old rocket bodies, dead satellites, debris from previous collisions and tests, and lost items from astronauts. The problem – like with the environment – is that there is little incentive for individual countries to avoid generating debris or clean it up.

The amount of space debris has only increased over time. For years, scientists have been warning about the possibility of a collision cascade. As the amount of debris increases, the chance of collisions between it and other satellites and debris also goes up. More collisions might then leave certain orbits completely unusable. While this could take decades to play out, events like the Russian test will only make such an outcome more likely.

What to do now?

In the short term, little can be done to mitigate this new cloud of space debris, but anyone with anything in space is on high alert to avoid it.

The U.S. government and commercial companies are tracking the new debris, and the crew on the International Space Station have been ordered to keep certain modules closed off as they continue to pass through the debris cloud. As the new debris spreads out and the pieces are tracked, station controllers will have a better understanding of the danger posed to the crew.

In the long run, experts recommend working on global solutions to remove debris. This includes taking measures to prevent debris in the first place and removing debris that is already in space. Several governmental and international organizations have proposed ways to prevent new debris, but these are informal and not legally binding.

Remediation is a tougher challenge. Technology to remove debris has not yet been fully developed, but even still, its deployment is a sensitive subject. The same technology that might be used to remove a piece of space junk could also be used for attacking a satellite. This dual-use technology poses challenges, as it can raise suspicions that countries are testing anti-satellite weapons under the cover of debris removal.

Despite the difficulties, there is growing international recognition that space debris is a dangerous problem. A consortium of private companies recently created the Net Zero Space charter to reduce debris, and the U.S. Space Force is looking for ways to combat the problem as well. While the world still does not yet have a full understanding of Russia’s actions, this event is a wake-up call on the importance of efforts to reduce pollution in Earth’s orbit.


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NASA Just Launched a Spacecraft
That Will Crash Into an Asteroid

An early morning liftoff kicks off DART, NASA’s first mission
to test a spacecraft that could one day save Earth from a deadly space rock.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, spacecraft onboard at the Space Launch Complex at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Tuesday.Credit...Bill Ingalls/NASA, via Associated Press

The New York Times
By Joey Roulette
Published Nov. 23, 2021Updated Nov. 24, 2021, 2:23 a.m. ET

NASA on Wednesday launched a spacecraft with one simple mission: Smash into an asteroid at 15,000 miles per hour.
The mission, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, left Earth to test whether slamming a spacecraft into an asteroid can nudge it into a different trajectory. Results from the test, if successful, will come in handy if NASA and other space agencies ever need to deflect an asteroid to save Earth and avert a catastrophic impact.

When was the launch and what happens next?
The DART spacecraft lifted off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Wednesday at 1:21 a.m. Eastern time (or 10:21 p.m. local time) from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The rocket reached space before sending its reusable booster back toward the ocean to land on a SpaceX’s drone ship. It will take about an hour to deploy the spacecraft in orbit, and hours after that it will unfurl solar panels to power the vehicle on its journey.

NASA hosted a livestream of the launch on its YouTube channel that started at 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Or you can watch it in the video player embedded above. SpaceX also had its own live video feed from the launchpad.
If night skies are not too cloudy, NASA provided a guide to where people in Southern California may be able to see the spacecraft as it exits the atmosphere.

Why is NASA crashing into an asteroid?
NASA is crashing DART into an asteroid to test, for the first time, a method of planetary defense that could one day save a city, or maybe the whole planet, from a catastrophic asteroid impact.

DART “is something of a replay of Bruce Willis’s movie, ‘Armageddon,’ although that was totally fictional,” Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, said in an interview.

If all goes as planned with DART, NASA will have a confirmed weapon in its planetary defense arsenal. Should a different asteroid ever wind up on a collision course with Earth, the world’s space agencies would have confidence that an asteroid missile like DART would shoo the space rock away.

An artist’s rendering of the DART spacecraft about to collide with Dimorphos.Credit...NASA/Johns Hopkins/APL

How will the mission work?
After launching to space, the spacecraft will make nearly one full orbit around the sun before it crosses paths with Dimorphos, a football-field-size asteroid that closely orbits a bigger asteroid, called Didymos, every 11 hours and 55 minutes. Astronomers call those two asteroids a binary system, where one is a mini-moon to the other. Together, the two asteroids make one full orbit around the sun every two years.

Dimorphos poses no threat to Earth, and the mission is essentially target practice. DART’s impact will happen in late September or early October next year, when the binary asteroids are at their closest point to Earth, roughly 6.8 million miles away.

Four hours before impact, the DART spacecraft, formally called a kinetic impactor, will autonomously steer itself straight toward Dimorphos for a head-on collision at 15,000 miles per hour. An onboard camera will capture and send back photos to Earth in real time until 20 seconds before impact. A tiny satellite from the Italian Space Agency, deployed 10 days before the impact, will come as close as 34 miles from the asteroid to snap images every six seconds in the moments before and after DART’s impact.

How will NASA know if DART succeeded?
Telescopes on Earth will fix their lenses on the crash site, showing the two asteroids as tiny dots of reflected sunlight. To measure whether DART’s impact changed Dimorphos’s orbit around Didymos, astronomers will track the time between one flicker of light — which indicates that Dimorphos has passed in front of Didymos — and another, which indicates that Dimorphos has orbited behind Didymos.

If Dimorphos’s orbit around Didymos is extended by at least 73 seconds, DART will have successfully performed its mission. But mission managers expect the impact to lengthen the asteroid’s orbit even more, by about 10 and 20 minutes.

Why can’t Earth just blow up asteroids that threaten the planet?
Simply striking hazardous space rocks with a nuclear weapon, like in “Armageddon” and other science fiction disaster films, could create a field of more hazardous space rocks, multiplying the dangers posed to Earth, rather than eliminating them.
Still, a nuclear device, if used the right way, is one of a few conceptual tools within NASA’s planetary defense toolbox.
For any small and distant asteroids that could threaten Earth in the next few decades, a mission like DART “has a pretty good probability of getting the job done,” said Brent Barbee, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“But if the asteroid is any bigger than that, or if the warning time is any shorter than that, then that’s where you transition from looking at kinetic impactors to nuclear devices,” Mr. Barbee said.

Astronomers and officials from various space agencies have simulated deflecting an asteroid away from Earth with the force of nuclear blasts.

Other asteroid-destroying simulations have shown that nuclear explosives could be used to annihilate some smaller asteroids as close as two months from impact, while posing little risk to Earth.

“There’s a lot of challenging aspects of a nuclear mission besides just the physics of the device itself, and how the device would interact with the asteroid,” Mr. Barbee said.

Treaties that ban the use of nuclear weapons, and the Outer Space Treaty, the cornerstone set of international space laws signed in the 1960s, prohibit the placement or use of nuclear weapons in space
That suggests that any countries’ emergency use of a nuclear-tipped spacecraft to fend off a killer asteroid would amount to a treaty violation. But that legal predicament could be resolved by an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

Are any asteroids headed toward us right now?
Headlines about asteroids making close passes of our planet are routine. But Earth should be safe from hazardous space rocks for the next century, according to NASA.

The agency maintains a database of near-Earth objects that come within about 28 million miles from Earth. The closest object to whiz by Earth in the next few days will be an asteroid between 50 and 100 feet wide, coming within 511,246 miles on Thanksgiving. (That’s about twice the distance to the moon.)

About 27,000 such objects have been tracked by NASA so far, which is just 40 percent of the total amount the agency is tasked with finding under its Near-Earth Object Observations Program.

NASA also maintains the Sentry Risk Table, which is a separate list of asteroids that have a higher chance of impacting Earth (though the chances remain extremely low). One celebrity on that list is Bennu, a gravelly, acorn-shaped asteroid about the size of a skyscraper. It has a 0.057 percent chance of impacting Earth sometime between the years 2178 and 2290.

NASA sent a spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx to Bennu last year to scoop up a suitcase’s worth of rock samples and bring them back to Earth in September 2023.

Of course, space rocks large and small surprise people on Earth all the time, whether by crash-landing on a Canadian woman’s bed or by shattering windows during atmospheric re-entry over a Russian city.

NASA Just Launched a Spacecraft That Will Crash Into an Asteroid - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

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