A dead Russian satellite has broken into more than 100 pieces in space

A decommissioned Russian satellite broke up in space on Wednesday, creating a cloud of debris in low-Earth orbit and prompting astronauts aboard the International Space Station to take protective measures.

The satellite, orbiting at an altitude of about 350 kilometers above the ground, broke into more than 100 pieces, according to reports. an announcement Thursday by US Space Command, a Defense Department agency that conducts military operations in space. Space Command added in its statement that there were “no immediate threats” and that the assessment of the situation was ongoing.

The satellite, known as Resurs P1, was launched by Russia in 2013 to observe Earth and produce images from space to support agriculture, meteorology, transportation and other purposes. Russia deactivated Resurs P1 in 2022. Since then, the satellite has been slowly losing altitude.

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency and the former operator of the defunct satellite, did not respond to a request for comment.

The destruction of Resurs P1 added to the growing amount of space debris, including dead satellites, lost tool bags, and more, around Earth. NASA estimates that there are currently more than 25,000 pieces of debris wider than four inches orbiting the Earth, and this number grows to more than 100 million when much smaller objects are counted. Experts consider the accumulation of space debris to be a risk to future space operations, and projects are being developed to address this remove larger objects from the track.

The fragmentation of the Resurs P1 satellite was detected and announced Wednesday by LeoLabs, an organization that tracks the safety of satellites in orbit around Earth. But why the event occurred is still unknown.

“It’s still very unclear,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who public catalogue of circling shrapnel in space. “We don’t have a clear understanding yet,” he added, saying there was “a wide range of possibilities.”

Dr. McDowell said an internal explosion from a long-dead battery in the satellite could be one explanation. Another worrying possibility is that Resurs P1 collided with a piece of space debris orbiting Earth.

The US Space Force maintains a catalog of significant orbital debris to prevent unexpected collisions like this. But it’s possible that the colliding piece was too small to be tracked.

“It’s starting to get busy there,” said Dr. McDowell.

A third and more concerning possibility is that the event was intentional. In 2021, Russia deliberately fired a missile at one of its own defunct satellites in orbit. China and India have also conducted anti-satellite missile tests, as has the United States, which has committed to doing so a ban on such tests in 2022.

But there are reasons to doubt an intentional explosion, said Dr. McDowell. Russia gave air crews a warning before the 2021 test so airlines could avoid the skies over the launch site. (Dr. McDowell didn’t hear a word of a similar warning this time.) And at about 13,000 pounds, Resurs P1 is a fairly large satellite, which makes it less suitable for rocket testing because of all the mess it would create.

Yet the satellite did pass a Russian launch site that could have been used to fire missiles during the time frame in which the event would have occurred, according to Dr. McDowell.

“So I can’t rule it out at this point,” he said, “but I can’t comment on it either.”

The rupture of Resurs P1 may have sent some of the debris into a high enough orbit to endanger SpaceX’s thousands of Starlink internet satellites or even the International Space Station.

Just after 9 p.m. Eastern Time, NASA ordered the nine astronauts aboard the International Space Station to move to safe areas as a “standard precaution.” according to a post on XAfter an hour, the crew resumed their normal activities.

The U.S. Space Force will work to catalog the debris from Resurs P1, although that could take several months. Until then, “it’s literally Russian roulette,” Dr. McDowell said. Untracked space debris poses a risk to other spacecraft in orbit, and until it’s properly registered in warning systems used by satellite operators, they won’t be able to avoid collisions.

In a worst-case scenario, the breakup of Resurs P1 could cause a domino effect: debris from one satellite crashes into another, which then collides with another – a response that is costly and disruptive, said Dr. McDowell, although in this case it seems unlikely.

Alina Lobzina contributed to the reporting.

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