back to article Russian anti-satellite test added to a 'pressing threat to security' in space

Debris from a Russian anti-satellite missile is causing chaos in orbit, with shards of ex-spacecraft circling the Earth at perilous speeds. Dan Oltrogge, chief scientist at space operations biz COMSPOC, explained how space junk generated from anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) are a "pressing threat to security and sustainability" …

  1. SteveK

    Just speculation but ...

    Given the timing of the creation of this debris cloud a few months before the invasion of Ukraine began, you have to wonder whether this was a planned event to make it harder and/or more risky for the US and other governments to get monitoring equipment into orbit or to use it as effectively.

    I have no idea one way or another and no agenda to push, it's just the way my brain joined the dots.

    1. Filippo Silver badge

      Re: Just speculation but ...

      In this case, I don't think there are many dots to be joined. If you know you're about to start an invasion, you test your weapons. In this specific case, you don't need anti-satellite weapons in order to invade Ukraine, but I guess that Russia couldn't completely rule out an escalation, and so they also needed to test stuff that they might need against more advanced potential opponents.

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: Just speculation but ...

        you don't need anti-satellite weapons in order to invade Ukraine, but I guess that Russia couldn't completely rule out an escalation,

        Welcome to the arms race. You don't need Brilliant Pebbles or Excalibur unless you're planning to win a war. And sadly, space has been weaponised, so reports of the West supplying Ukraine with space-based intelligence to assist planning, or targeting.

        At some point, in some conflict, some nation in possession of ASAT weapons will say 'enough', and close the sky. But that's just one of those risks when you get proxy wars between super powers and there's technology available to level the playing field. But technology is also making ASAT's job harder, so instead of honking great spy sattelites, governments and commercial satellite operators are using smaller ones, or swarms.

        But I think that's also a problem, and probably a bigger problem. Over the last couple of weeks there's been a lot of live launch feeds to watch. Think it was last week when there was a SpaceX, Atlas and planned ICBM test launch in one day. We've got Musk planning to launch thousands of satellites for his broadband constellation, and Bezos planning to compete. And potential collisions between Starlink junk and the ISS have already happened. So as we launch more stuff, the possibility of collision increases and we risk creating an accidental no-fly zone anyway.

        1. ThatOne Silver badge
          Unhappy

          Re: Just speculation but ...

          > are using smaller ones, or swarms

          Small satellites are just as vulnerable as big ones: Just hit a satellite in the right orbit and the resulting kilometer-wide cloud of debris will form some kind of hypervelocity buckshot which is able to sweep whole orbits clear, getting bigger and bigger as it pulverizes its victims. Small satellites stand as little chance as big ones to evade it, the only consolation is they were cheaper...

          It only takes some he-man politician's testosterone-fueled decision to start a Kessler syndrome situation...

          1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

            Re: Just speculation but ...

            Small satellites are just as vulnerable as big ones:

            But they're harder to hit, and would create less debris. Or we have things like the Starlink 2 satellites, which will be thousands of larger satellites. Assuming Starship manages to launch them.

            1. ThatOne Silver badge

              Re: Just speculation but ...

              > But they're harder to hit, and would create less debris.

              I agree about the less debris, but I fail to see the advantage in size: If you go through a cloud of orbital hypervelocity buckshot you will get hit, no matter if you're big or small. And one single 6800 mph/11000 km/h pellet hitting would be enough to turn your satellite into yet another cloud of buckshot, speeding in a slightly different orbit in search of new targets to vaporize.

              "Vaporize" is the key word here. At those speeds metals behave like liquids, so hitting something causes it to "splash" out in a cloud of tiny debris which will travel together, much like a shotgun shot.

              1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

                Re: Just speculation but ...

                By harder to hit, I mean harder to hit with an ASAT. Even if you use a shotgun-style weapon like Brilliant Pebbles, given space being kinda huge. I've been musing about Angry Spider(tm) though as a variation on LRPs used in current SAM weapons. Just launch an ASAT that can deploy a spinning web along the same orbital path as your target, and a slightly higher velocity. Or you could go with the opposite direction, but then you'd probably need something more net-like to give a higher chance of contact.

                Plus I just like the idea of a web because mass blocks used to keep it extended would twat the sat like a bolas.

                It's something El Reg should investigate, along with the actual effects of hypervelocity projectiles vs satellites, so whether it would vaporise a target, or just punch a small hole through it. Might need the logo changed to a vulture with an umbrella though.

                (But it's easy! I just made the mistake of watching Moonfall, complete with it's SLBS (Submarine Launched Ballistic Shuttle). It was.. bad. But then Emmerich is a firm follower of climate dogma, so obviously understands The Science)

                1. ThatOne Silver badge

                  Re: Just speculation but ...

                  > By harder to hit, I mean harder to hit with an ASAT.

                  Sorry, missed that.

                  .

                  > given space being kinda huge.

                  Common misconception. "Space" is indeed huge, but orbits are not. A satellite is like a train, speeding along a well-defined track, allowing you to know days in advance where it will be at any time. It's not like a satellite can hide or carry out evasive maneuvers, it will run along its track, over and over again, at best it can make some slow and clumsy efforts to (very slightly) change altitude. Fish in a tank come to mind.

                  Now I agree there is little reason somebody would want to attack a specific Starlink (or any other constellation) satellite, but if he wanted to kill them all, he would only need one single ASAT rocket: Just create a larger blast of buckshot, and let the cascading collisions progressively clear out the orbits of the constellation, the debris of destroyed satellites helping destroy their remaining siblings, till all the constellation's orbits are populated by hypervelocity clouds of debris. Fish in a tank, as I said.

                  .

                  > Or you could go with the opposite direction, but then you'd probably need something more net-like to give a higher chance of contact.

                  Yikes! Two objects meeting at 2x 6800 mph/11000 km/h would only leave a big cloud of plasma I guess. Don't be fooled by movies into thinking satellites move at street speeds, they move at what down here would be Mach 8 or 9! This means orbital collisions aren't just fender benders, a simple hypervelocity spec of paint can crash through armored glass, as seen on the Shuttles (and maybe the ISS too)... A stray bolt would crash through anything, like some anti-armor kinetic energy projectile.

                  1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

                    Re: Just speculation but ...

                    Common misconception. "Space" is indeed huge, but orbits are not. A satellite is like a train, speeding along a well-defined track, allowing you to know days in advance where it will be at any time.

                    I guess that could depend on how accurate your tracking and space weather monitoring systems are. So compensating for any increased/decreased drag due to atmospheric expansion/contraction. And to extend the train analogy, you'd still have to do something the equivalent of glueing a dart board to the side of a high speed train, throwing a dart at it and scoring a bullseye.

                    ...at best it can make some slow and clumsy efforts to (very slightly) change altitude.

                    Where's your imagination? Vehicles are already fitted with anti-missile systems, so same could be extended to satellites. ERA might get interesting given Newton's 3rd law, as could jettisoning anti-missile shields. Or rely on 3rd Law effects to create an emergency dodge manouver via ERA tiles. Challenge would be either on-board systems to detect an incoming threat, or ground-based detection.

                    but if he wanted to kill them all, he would only need one single ASAT rocket:

                    I still don't think ASATs are the risk. All you'd need to do is create enough collisions to generate that cascade. More satellites, the easier it becomes to do that either accidentally or deliberately.

                    Yikes! Two objects meeting at 2x 6800 mph/11000 km/h would only leave a big cloud of plasma I guess. Don't be fooled by movies into thinking...

                    ... plasma 'bolts' have much in the way of kinetic energy, recoil or all the other effects generally seen in SF. Trying throwing a candle flame (just the flame) at someone to see what I mean. Especially given the Sun already farts collosal amounts of plasma in our general direction, with about as much kinetic effect as the average Storm Trooper.

                    This means orbital collisions aren't just fender benders, a simple hypervelocity spec of paint can crash through armored glass, as seen on the Shuttles (and maybe the ISS too)... A stray bolt would crash through anything, like some anti-armor kinetic energy projectile.

                    Two of my favorite examples. NASA discovering a chipped windscreen on a shuttle, then discovering it was probably due to collision with a frozen fragment of urine. And an M1A1 tank during one of the Gulf Wars that had a very neat hole drilled right through it, probably by a new type of RPG. Again part of the joys of physics. A typical kinetic projectile would probably be a long-rod DU penetrator, but that generally relies on the properties of DU, ie fragmentation and being rather pyrophoric. Otherwise you could end up with the M1A1 example, and just leave a neat hole.

                    So depending on desired outcome, you want 'enough' energy to achieve the desired effect. Too much, and you'd have your plasma, which would cool and condense into teeny droplets, or do nothing unless it made a hole in something vital. Accidental or deliberate collisions would probably be the most certain way to create shrapnel clouds though.

                    1. ThatOne Silver badge

                      Re: Just speculation but ...

                      > I guess that could depend on how accurate your tracking and space weather monitoring systems are

                      Pretty accurate, since you can easily follow any satellite in real time (just need a telescope). It's not like it can hide... As for the dart board on the side of the train, this is a loaded comparison. In this case we would be having a computerized tracking system aiming at a well known and predictable target moving at constant speed. You could do it with a smartphone's worth of electronics.

                      .

                      > Vehicles are already fitted with anti-missile systems, so same could be extended to satellites

                      The whole "drop chaff, start evasive maneuvers" thing doesn't work for a satellite, simply because it is utterly incapable of carrying out any kind of evasive maneuvers. In orbit there is only one option of maneuver, a slow, progressive change in orbit (usually higher or lower). The deep space dog fights you see in Star Wars movies are pure fiction, they simply aren't possible... (Try the Orbiter simulator and you'll understand.)

                      .

                      > plasma 'bolts' have much in the way of kinetic energy, recoil or all the other effects generally seen in SF.

                      Sorry, you lost me here. Anyway, my point was that the collision of two objects meeting at two times orbital speed would probably result in them both being vaporized into a cloud of plasma (which I agree would be pretty harmless, but not the outcome you'd wish for when trying to "catch" something with a net).

                      .

                      > A typical kinetic projectile would probably be a long-rod DU penetrator

                      Or a boiled macaroni at Mach 60... :-D

              2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Re: Just speculation but ...

                "a cloud of orbital hypervelocity buckshot "

                Depends on the orbital difference. The velocity of the debris cloud is relative to the potential target, not absolute or relative to some "at rest" spot on Earth.

                1. ThatOne Silver badge
                  Happy

                  Re: Just speculation but ...

                  > Depends on the orbital difference.

                  True, but it is high enough to be devastating even at lower percentages. Half of "enormous" is still "pretty huge"...

    2. Graham Jordan

      Re: Just speculation but ...

      Not speculation, I can't find it now but I'm sure Putin came outright with "look what we can do, mother fuckers! Stop interfering with our shit else your sats are toast."

      In those exact words too, when he's not posing nude on a horse, he speaks street.

      1. ChoHag Bronze badge

        Re: Just speculation but ...

        That's not Putin, that's just Russian. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/251308.Dermo_

        1. Irony Deficient Silver badge

          That’s not Putin, that’s just Russian.

          That’s not Russian — that’s just мат. ;*)

  2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

    Yeah, well this is just a demonstration of how well we play together : badly.

    Selfishness exists at all levels, individual, department, company, and country.

    This storm of debris demonstrates a country-level of selfishness that is, unfortunately, not surprising.

    1. lglethal Silver badge
      Go

      Re: "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

      Prior to the whole Ukraine invasion - the various major space agencies (with the possible exception of the Chinese) worked quite well together. They co-ordinated pretty well.

      But once militaries get involved, such as those wanting to shoot down satellites, then co-operation and co-ordination goes out the window. Once the militaries decide they want to test their weapons, even if the space agency turned around and says this will cause us masses of problems, Who do you think the man with his finger on the trigger is going to listen to - the generals or the scientists?

      Shame, really. The world would be 100x better if it was in the hands of the scientists instead of the politicians and militaries...

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

        Shame indeed.

        I wonder how much the presence of orbiting debris degrades the possibility of using similar ASAT weapons in the future: at what point is there so much debris that there's only a low proportion of launches that are not going to intersect it at some time.

        And there of course we remain for some time until the mess sorts itself out... possibly never.

        1. jdiebdhidbsusbvwbsidnsoskebid Bronze badge

          Re: "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

          "And there of course we remain for some time until the mess sorts itself out... possibly never"

          I'm going for never. If the space debris situation were to ever get to the point where the MTBF of a satellite due to space debris was only a few days, no nation's military would decline to use space. They'll just keep launching new satellites every few days, or hours, or whatever their magic money tree war chest will fund.

      2. VoiceOfTruth

        Re: "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

        -> The world would be 100x better if it was in the hands of the scientists instead of the politicians and militaries...

        It was scientists who said that thalidomide was safe. It wasn't.

        It was scientists who said that benzodiazepines were safe. They weren't.

        It was scientists who said that synthetic opioids were safe. They weren't.

        It is scientists who tell us that a glass of wine a day is good for you. It is other scientists who say that one glass of wine a day is too much.

        Scientists are not always right, quite often they are wrong. I take your point, but I would not want to live in a scientoccracy with some priestly caste of scientists deciding what is good for me.

        1. lglethal Silver badge
          FAIL

          Re: "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

          And who was it that determined that Thalomide wasnt safe. Other Scientists.

          Science is about collaboration and communication. Scientific Consensus will point one way, until evidence comes along and says No that's wrong. Then Science will admit it's mistake and move on to the correct solution, or the next correct solution.

          Politicians do not do that. General's never do that.

          China's entire economy is in the toilet right now because of it's Zero Covid strategy, which the rest of the world has abandoned. But China cant abandon it, because it's entire leadership have spent the last year telling the Chinese population that the rest of the world are idiots and Zero Covid is the only way forward. They cannot admit they were wrong.

          The Russian advance in the first few weeks of the Ukraine invasion killed hundreds (maybe thousands) of their own troops. They expected to waltz in and be welcomed by the Ukrainian people. The generals and Putin cant admit they screwed up, they cant admit they're failed strategies cost thousands of their own soldiers lives. And so they plow more and more soldiers into the meatgrinder, and hide the true figures from their own people.

          I'll take Science, which will happily say, we have new evidence which says we were wrong before, so now we will move forward with the right way forward. I'll take science, anyday...

          1. VoiceOfTruth

            Re: "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

            -> And who was it that determined that Thalomide wasnt safe. Other Scientists.

            Thank you for confirming my point. I wrote that scientists are not always right. What a pity that the first groups of scientists who said such and such was safe can't be force fed the excrement they created.

            -> I'll take science, anyday...

            Which science? The first that comes along? Or the next lot that says and proves the first lot wrong?

            1. lnLog

              pedant says...

              -> Thank you for confirming my point. I wrote that scientists are not always right. What a pity that the first groups of scientists who said such and such was safe can't be force fed the excrement they created.

              Thalidomide is safe to those taking it (people still take it to treat leprosy), however it is not safe for fetus at a certain developmental point. Now how many pregnant women do you think were in the initial drug trials? same number as are in pretty much all drug trials - zero.

              There is never zero risk, and sometimes the consequences are horrendous, but new information comes to light and conclusions change.

              1. VoiceOfTruth

                Re: pedant says...

                -> Thalidomide is safe to those taking it (people still take it to treat leprosy), however it is not safe for fetus at a certain developmental point. Now how many pregnant women do you think were in the initial drug trials? same number as are in pretty much all drug trials - zero.

                I suggest that you read a bit more about the history of thalidomide. I don't like quoting Wikipedia, but it does provide the summary of a couple of points to 100% refute your statement.

                1. Researchers at Chemie Grünenthal found that thalidomide was a particularly effective antiemetic that had an inhibitory effect on morning sickness

                Only pregnant women get morning sickness.

                2. During that period, the use of medications during pregnancy was not strictly controlled,

                That is not the same thing as saying there were zero pregnant women taking part in the tests. See point 1 above.

                Alas, a lot of people still repeat what you have written above. They are 100% in error. Thalidomide was tested on pregnant women.

                I don't doubt that thalidomide is safe in certain circumstances, BUT once again the first bunch of scientists came along and said it was safe. They were wrong.

        2. ThatOne Silver badge
          Megaphone

          Re: "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

          > Scientists are not always right, quite often they are wrong.

          Really? Who said scientists are all-knowing and infallible? Definitely not a scientist! Infallibility, and having clear answers to everything, is the job of religions, not science.

          Yes, scientists are "quite often wrong", but the thing is, each shaky theory is a stepping stone to understanding our world a little better, even if sometimes they temporary go off the wrong track.

          That is what non-scientists (and religious science-haters) can't or won't understand: It's all about the ongoing effort to understand the universe around us, and that's an ongoing, never ending process. What we "know" today will most likely be smiled upon in a century or two. Which brings us to something which utterly confuses the laymen: The fact that a theory can be "wrong" and still work. A good example is Newton's law of universal gravitation. We know better since, but still, Newton's gravity equations aren't all wrong, we still use them. Chances are our current theories about relativity (for instance) will in the future be similarly considered "wrong", but still mostly usable.

          Do not come to science looking for "Truth", that's what your local church is for. Science tries to give answers, knowing some of them are bound to be temporary more or less off as smart people rack their brains to find a logical explanation to things.

      3. LoPath

        Re: "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

        The problem with putting the world in the hands of scientists.... There are now scientists that have biases, based on politics, money, ego, etc. Who defines a good scientist versus a bad scientist?

        1. ThatOne Silver badge

          Re: "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

          Nonsense, scientists aren't any better than non-scientists. They are smarter, at least on some domains, have studied more, and that about sums it up. A generic scientist wouldn't make a better politician than a generic hairdresser or ship captain or whatever other job not directly related to money.

          Scientists are not your local brand of Gandalf...

      4. Bartholomew Bronze badge

        Re: "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

        > Shame, really. The world would be 100x better if it was in the hands of the scientists instead of the politicians and militaries...

        Normally I would agree with you, but keep in mind that Margaret Thatcher came for a science background (second-class degree in chemistry) ... so be careful what you wish for you might just get it (again).

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

          Angela Merkel, the previous chancellor of Germany, was a chemist (quantum chemistry) too.

          Apparently chemistry is good for creating strong female politicians...

    2. paulr78

      Re: "internationally-established consensus best practices for space operations"

      The concept of "selfishness" is entirely ludicrous when applied to the concept of nation states acting in their sovereign interests.

  3. Coastal cutie

    Life imitating art

    Legend (Channel 41 Freeview) are currently re-running the series UFO (1970). The subject of last night's episode "Conflict" - SHADO lobbying for space junk to be cleaned up so it didn't hit things or provide cover for malevolent activities.

    1. Sixtiesplastictrektableware Bronze badge

      Re: Life imitating art

      I vote for SHADO taking over society.

      This after seeing UFO for the first time a couple months back.

      Just the suits alone would be worth the likely troubles.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Life imitating art

        Bring back silver mini-skirts!!!

  4. paulr78

    No mention of the Chinese Long March 5B orbiter that was recklessly allowed to crash to Earth in early May of this year?

    Oh sorry, yeah. The narrative ....

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      That was a short lived debris cloud in the almosphere, possibly some bits making it to a watery grave. Not a long lived orbital cloud of debris. Still not good, but not even in the same ball park.

      1. ThatOne Silver badge

        Indeed, what goes up must come down, and till recently all rockets had rather huge parts (first/second stages, boosters) which just dropped back down, usually over some stretch of ocean.

        It only becomes a problem when it either drops on people on the ground (which is unlikely given the biggest part of Earth is covered with seas), or if it lingers up there and does a bull in a china shop impression among all those fragile satellites minding their own business.

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