Though rarely talked about, space is one of the many frontiers where the cold war between the United States and Russia was waged. Decades after the infamous Space Race, both countries are locked in another conflict.
The current issue between superpowers began earlier this month when the U.S. accused Russia of endangering the lives of its astronauts. And Russia isn't backing down.
Alarming Missile Tests from Russia
Earlier this month, the Russian military carried out a test of an anti-satellite missile. The test went smoothly, the missile successfully destroying the orbiting Kosmos 1408 satellite. While the Russian military got what it needed from the test, it certainly ruffled feathers globally.
In a statement, NASA described the test as a reckless move that put the lives of International Space Station (ISS) astronauts in danger. As the agency explained, the ISS crew was woken to secure certain facility sections after the Russians' test generated a massive amount of space debris.
The crew eventually had to take shelter in spacecraft capsules for up to two hours, protocols already set to return to Earth if anything went wrong.
Several other U.S. government departments spoke up against the actions of the Russian military. At a press briefing, State Department spokesperson Ned Price explained that Russia's missile testing caused an explosion. Price didn't hold back, calling the Russian military's tests reckless and destructive.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken added that the test risked the lives of the ISS' astronauts and scientists. Bill Nelson, NASA's administrator, said:
"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."
Russia's action drew condemnation from governments, private companies, and global space agencies on the international stage. Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart said in a statement that the Russian military had acted irresponsibly, destroying valuable infrastructure and creating more space debris issues in a time when efforts are being made to clear the region.
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which represents the global commercial spaceflight industry, also condemned the Russians in a statement. The federation also claimed that the missile test was a danger to human life and the valuable and growing space ecosystem.
Regardless, the Russian government has remained resolute in its stance that it didn't do anything wrong. The government reportedly accused the U.S. of hypocrisy in that it conducted similar tests in the past.
Local news sources reported that Dmitry Rogozin, director of the Russian space agency, would meet with NASA representatives and others to discuss the issue.
Creating Problems for Decades to Come
While the situation is frustrating for all involved, the aftermath of Russia's missile test is also insightful. Most important is the growing concern around space debris, a hot-button issue right now.
The U.S. State Department noted that the missile test generated around 1,500 fragments which are currently being tracked across low Earth orbit. In addition, thousands of smaller particles generated are untraceable. And moving at a rapid pace, space debris could now collide with anything in its way.
It will take weeks to estimate the extent of the damage. Early visualizations from satellite trackers show a lengthy trail of space debris forming. In a blog post, private space tracking company LeoLabs explained that some collision risk exists for most satellites currently in low Earth Orbit. As the company pointed out, these risks will remain over the next few decades.
Two of the most prominent visualizations come from the space software company AGI and the European Union's Space Surveillance and Tracking network. Visuals show an initial buildup of debris and rapid expansion through space. AGI's visualization even indicates how close the debris cloud came to colliding with the ISS, validating concerns from the U.S. government that astronauts aboard the station were in danger.
Hugh Lewis, a University of Southampton engineering professor, shared his own visualization. Lewis explained that the missile experiment fragments to shoot out in different directions, each piece traveling at its own pace, mainly depending on orbit height.
Lewis added that the debris cloud could morph over time, eventually sending fragments in lower orbits towards Earth.