Are the wreckage of a satellite shot down by Russia dangerous for the ISS?

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On November 15 this year, Russia tested an anti-satellite missile and destroyed its inactive Tselina-D satellite, which was in low orbit. Immediately after that, the information space exploded with news, some media wrote that it was irresponsible and the debris threatened many satellites and the ISS, others that the scattering of the debris was taken into account and there was no danger. In light of this, I got a lot of questions like this one:

It should be said right away that Russia is far from the first country to test anti-satellite weapons, and even over the past 15 years, the United States, India and China have also shot down their own satellites. Many people have a logical question: why was there so much noise around the Russian tests?

In fact, the Chinese tests in 2013-2015 drew no less condemnation from Western countries than the current Russian ones. But the tests carried out by India in 2019 went almost unnoticed.

The thing is that the United States in recent years (during the Cold War it was different) and India shot down satellites in very low orbits, as a result, very few debris reached actively used orbits, and most of them fell into the atmosphere extremely quickly. But the tests of Russia and China heavily polluted actively used orbits.

As a result of the destruction of the satellite, according to various sources, from 1,500 to 3,000 large debris (data are being updated in real time) and up to 100,000 microscopic ones were formed.

Based on the observation data for the debris, many of them were thrown into an orbit with an altitude of 420 to 800 km, while the ISS orbit is maintained at an altitude of 390-430 km, and the Chinese Tiangong station — 340-450 km.

Thus, the cloud of debris crossed the ISS orbit several times, because of which the cosmonauts were forced to prepare for the evacuation and sit in ships for several orbits around the Earth in case the debris collided with the station. At the moment, there is no longer a serious danger for the station and the cosmonauts have returned to their normal work, but small untracked debris can still collide with the station, and large ones can cross the ISS orbit in the future, so they will have to be constantly monitored and, possibly, evaded. …

At the time of the tests themselves, the greatest danger was the unpredictability of the scattering of the debris, even though, according to Roscosmos calculations, the main cloud of debris should not have collided with any satellite or station, there was still a possibility that individual debris would move more than expected and leave with the calculated orbits, the results of the explosions are still difficult to predict.

Therefore, the main reason for criticism against Russia was not the very fact of the tests, but the choice for this satellite, the explosion of which led to severe pollution of the actively used orbit, while the whole world seeks not to clog it and is looking for ways to clean the orbit.

Author: Fedor Karasenko

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