Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) fled for safety in their docked spaceship capsules Monday after Russia fired a missile at one of its own defunct satellites, creating a debris field hazardous to people and assets in low Earth orbit (LEO).
None of the seven crew members was hurt, but they had to remain sheltered for two hours in case they needed a quick getaway, NASA said. Although pieces of debris can be minuscule, even small objects traveling at orbital velocity can damage or penetrate spacecraft. Monday’s mess will pose a threat for years.
“NASA will continue monitoring the debris in the coming days and beyond to ensure the safety of our crew in orbit,” NASA chief Bill Nelson said.
Anti-satellite tests, when they occur, create clouds of fragments that can collide with other objects, setting off a chain reaction of projectiles through Earth’s orbit.
“The orbit of the object, which forced the crew today to move into spacecraft according to standard procedures, has moved away from the ISS orbit,” Russia’s space agency Roscosmos tweeted. “The station is in the green zone.”
In addition to four U.S. astronauts and a German astronaut, the ISS team included two of Russia’s own: cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov.
“It is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts,” Nelson said.
Four of the crewmates — NASA’s Raja Chair, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, and European Space Agency’s Matthias Maurer — arrived at the station only four days prior to the incident. Despite the surprise, they will remain for a six-month science mission.
“Thanks for the crazy but well-coordinated day. We really appreciated all the situational awareness you gave us,” NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei told NASA headquarters. “It was certainly a great way to bond as a crew, starting off our very first workday in space.”
The missile generated more than 1,500 pieces of “trackable orbital debris” and would likely spawn hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments, the U.S. Space Command said.
The research lab continued to pass through or near the debris cluster every 90 minutes, but NASA specialists determined it was safe for the crew to return to the station’s interior after the third pass. They were also ordered to seal off hatches to several modules for the time being.
Bill Nelson said the debris also threatened a separate Chinese space station under construction and its crew of three “taikonauts.”
“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” space command chief U.S. Army General James Dickinson said. “The debris from the missile test “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 maneuvers.”
Russia is not the first country to conduct anti-satellite tests in space. The United States performed the first in 1959, and in 2019 India shot down one of its own LEO satellites with a ground-to-space missile. Russia’s last such test came in April.
The military implications of missile tests in space are apparent, but the resulting debris poses a danger to civilian astronauts caught in the crossfire, as well as commercial satellites crucial for telecommunications, GPS, Earth imaging, and other applications.