Anyone who follows news on space activities will be aware that on November 15th, Russia carried out the test of an anti-satellite(ASAT) missile system that resulted in the destruction of a defunct Soviet-era electronic signals intelligence (ELINT) satellite – and required the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) to move to their respective Earth return vehicles (Soyuz MS-19 and Crew Dragon Endurance) due to risk of being hit by the debris.
To be clear, ASAT systems are not new. The United States and Russia (/the Soviet Union) have between them spent decades developing and testing such systems (the last successful US test was in 2006, with both the USAF and USN having significant ASAT capabilities), and China and India have also demonstrated ASAT systems as deliberate demonstrations of force.
However, the November 15th test by Russia was somewhat different. Occupying a polar orbit at an average altitude of around 470 km, the 2.2 tonne Kosmos 1408 as both a substantial target risking a massive debris cloud, and routinely “passed over” the orbit of the ISS (ave 420 km), putting it at clear risk. Nor did Russia give any forewarning of the test.
Instead, the US Space Command only became aware of what had happened after they tracked the missile launch all the way to impact – and then started tracking the cloud of debris. This presented no danger to the ISS in its first orbit, but tracking showed it was a very define threat to the station on its 2nd and 3rd orbits, prompting mission controllers to order the ISS crew to start shutting down non-essential operations and sealing-off hatches between the various science modules.
Some 15 minutes before the second pass of the debris field across the station’s orbit, controllers called the station to order the US / European astronauts in the “US section” of the station to secure all remaining hatches to minimise the risk of explosive decompression in the event of a hit, and evacuate to Crew Dragon Endurance both in case an emergency undock was required, and because it presented a significantly smaller target for any stray debris travelling at 28,000 km. The controllers also noted the Russia cosmonauts on the station were engaged in similar actions, and would be retiring to their Soyuz MS-19 vehicle.
In all, the crews were restricted to their Earth return vehicles for somewhere in the region of 3-3.5 hours before it was considered the most significant risk of and impacts had for the most part passed. Even so, it was not until November 17th that all hatches on the ISS were unsealed to allow normal operations to resume throughout all modules. Currently, NASA is still monitoring the situation and may postpone a spacewalk planned for November 30th as a result of the debris risk.
Ironically, on November 11th, the ISS had to raise its orbit somewhat using the thrust from a docked Progress re-supply vehicle in order to completely remove the risk of debris from 2007 Chinese ASAT weapon test striking it, 14 years after the test.
Following the test, Russia attempted to play down the risk, stating it posed “no threat” to other orbital vehicle, crewed or uncrewed – a less than accurate statement. Analysis of the debris cloud by both US Space Command and civilian debris tracking organisations reveals much of the cloud will remain a threat for the next several years – if not decades – as the convoluted nature of orbital mechanics and impact velocity gradually increases the cloud’s orbital altitude for a time as it continues to disperse, putting satellites in higher orbits at risk – particularly the likes of the SpaceX Starlink and the OneWeb constellations.
Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations. The debris created by Russia’s DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance manoeuvres.
– U.S. Army General James Dickinson, Space Command.
Some 1500 individual pieces of debris from the test are of a trackable size, with potentially tens of thousands more that are too small to be identified. Tim Flohrer, head of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Debris Office noted that the test means that debris avoidance manoeuvres made by satellites in the 400-500 km orbit range may increase by as much as 100% for the next couple of years before the threat is sufficiently dissipated. One of the biggest risks posed by this kind of action is the Kessler Effect (or Kessler Syndrome), wherein debris from one impact causes a second impact, generating more debris, and so setting off a chain reaction.
Given its size and orbit, there is simply no way Russia was unaware of the threat posed by Kosmos 1408 to low-orbit vehicles – particularly crewed vehicles and facilities – if the test was successful. As such, some have seen it as irresponsible due to the impact it could have on general orbital space operations, while others see it as a sign of aggressive intent on Vladimir Putin’s part.
Currently, Russia has not indicated as to whether this was a one-off incident (a previous test in 2020 missed its target), as has been the case in the US, Chinese and Indian tests, or if it could be a part of a wide series of tests. If the latter, then international relationships are liable to be further strained.
NASA OIG: No Moon Landing Before 2026
Following NASA’s indication that the first Artemis lunar laying won’t come “earlier” that 2025, the agency’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG) has thrown a bucket of realism over the entire project, pretty much confirming comments made in this blog concerning vehicle development timelines, whilst also questioning the sustainability of the programme.
Having carried out an extensive audit of the programme, OIG has issued a 73-page report which critiques the current Artemis programme and time frames, although it can only offer suggestions on what might be done, not instigated changes.
It terms of the development of the Human Landing System (HLS), required to get crews to / from the surface of the Moon, the report follows what has been noted in Space Sunday: the 4-year development time frame is simply unrealistic. In particular, the report notes that even in partnerships such as the Commercial Crew Programme, NASA tends to require around 8.5 years to develop a new spaceflight capability – more than double that allocated for HLS (in fact, NASA / SpaceX believed Crew Dragon could be developed and ready for operation in 6 years – it took 10). It also indicates that while a reliance on a single vehicle design / contractors (currently SpaceX) reduces costs, it also places further risk on the entire programme time fame and operations.
Further, the OIG report states that realistically, the first flight of the first Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is unlikely to take place until mid-2022; somewhat later than NASA is still projecting (early 2022). It goes on to point of that given the delays on Artemis 1, it is unlikely that the Artemis 2 mission scheduled for 2023 and which will fly a crew around the Moon and back to Earth in a manner akin to Apollo 8 is unlikely to be ready until mid-2024, simply because NASA plan to re-use elements from the Artemis 1 Orion vehicle in the Artemis 2 Orion, and these will need a comprehensive post-flight examination and refurbishment.
Beyond this, the report also raises concerns whether the space suit required for lunar operations – the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) – will actually be ready for operations in 2025, issues in technical development, and in NASA flip-flopping between in-house and commercial contract development of the suit being pointed to as reasons for the delays.
The biggest critique in the report, however, is related to costs. The OIG report notes that at current levels of expenditure, Artemis will cost US $93 billion by 2025/26, with the first four Artemis SLS / Orion launches (Artemis 1 through 4) alone costing US $4.1 each – and this estimate does not include the development of the actual HLS system or the costs to launch / operate it.
To reduce these costs, OIG suggests looking to alternate launch vehicles to deliver crews to lunar orbit, but NASA management has already rejected such ideas and had refuted OIG’s cost analysis and call for most closely accounting for expenditure. However, it has accepted the report’s other concerns; although it will take time to see if this translates into any form of re-assessment of the programme as a whole.