Moscow
People walk on a bridge in Zaryadye Park decorated for New Year celebrations, with the Kremlin in the background, in Moscow, in a file photo. Russia's defence ministry on Tuesday admitted to destroying one of its satellites during a missile test but rejected US accusations that it had endangered the International Space Station. Image Credit: AP

Washington: Russia conducted a strike against a Soviet-era satellite in space on Monday, creating more than 1,500 pieces of debris that US officials said posed a reckless risk and showed Moscow’s insincerity when it says it doesn’t want to weaponize space.

The test marked the first time that Russia has demonstrated an ability to strike a satellite using a missile launched from Earth.

Russia’s defence ministry admitted to destroying one of its satellites during a missile test but rejected US accusations that it had endangered the International Space Station.

“The Russian defence ministry successfully conducted a test, as a result of which the Russian spacecraft ‘Tselina-D’, which had been in orbit since 1982, was destroyed,” the military said in a statement.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described the test as a “reckless” and “concerning” act.

“It demonstrates that Russia is now developing new weapon systems that can shoot down satellites,” he said at a meeting with EU defence ministers.

During a briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the anti-satellite test had created more than 1,500 pieces of sizeable debris that could damage other satellites or affect astronauts at the International Space Station.

“Earlier today, the Russian Federation recklessly conducted a destructive . . . test of a direct ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites,” Price said. “The test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations.”

Price said the test threatened astronauts on the space station and said it “clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weaponization of space are disingenuous.”

‘Outrageous’ and ‘unconscionable’

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson called the strike “outrageous” and “unconscionable.”

“It’s inexplicable that they would do this and threaten not only our astronauts after we’ve cooperated in space since 1975, but threaten their own cosmonauts,” he said.

He noted that Nasa astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who flew to the station as part of the Russian crew, evacuated the station with the Russian cosmonauts and sought shelter with them in the Russian Soyuz attached to the station.

Nelson said that the debris could do “serious damage” to the station and that he was “quite concerned” about the safety of the astronauts.

He said he would not be surprised if his counterpart at the Russian space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, didn’t “know a thing about this, and it’s the Russian military doing their thing.” There is currently a Nasa delegation in Russia, and he said he believes that members of the Russian space agency “didn’t know anything about this. And they’re probably just as appalled as we are.”

The United States has accused Russia of testing space weapons before. In July 2020, US Space Command said the country had conducted a “non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon,” accusing Moscow of injecting a “new object into orbit” from one of its known military satellites.

Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, said Moscow has conducted other types of anti-satellite tests in the past that have involved one satellite attacking another.

In recent years, Russia has been doing close maneuvers with other satellites and at one point appeared to launch a projectile from one of its satellites, but those incidents didn’t involve a strike creating debris, he said.

The previous activity occurred within a Russian satellite system that U.S. officials had raised concerns about in the past, after it maneuvered near a US government satellite in a move that Washington saw as evidence that Moscow was trying to advance its space weaponry.

“Historically Russia has been interested in developing anti-satellite weapons to be able to take out American space capabilities in the event of a conflict and also to be able to take out potential space-based missile defenses which could threaten the Russian nuclear deterrent,” Weeden said.

Mike Rogers, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said the test showed why the US Space Command and Space Force are needed.

“Space has already become a warfighting domain,” he said.

LeoLabs, a US company that tracks space debris, confirmed on Twitter that it was seeing debris near the expected location of Cosmos 1408, which NASA describes as an abandoned electronic and signals intelligence satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1982.

China conducted an anti-satellite weapons test using a projectile launched from Earth in 2007. The following year, the United States struck one of its own spy satellites that was malfunctioning and expected to crash to Earth. India conducted a kinetic anti-satellite test in 2019.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US government was closely tracking Russian space capabilities.

“We’re concerned about any nation that would weaponize space,” he said. “We want to see the space domain subject to international norms and rules so that it can be explored by all space-faring nations in a responsible way, and this was an irresponsible act.”