Fire in the playground. Russia decided last Monday (15) that it was a good day to test an anti-satellite missile and blow up one of its own space artifacts. It worked. Now, instead of having a large chunk of space junk in a well-defined orbit, we have more than 1,500 small debris, plus hundreds of thousands untraceable, flying in slightly different orbits. Most will disappear within a year, re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Some could stay there for more than a decade. And they all pose some danger to other satellites in the same region of space.
The “victim” was a satellite internationally listed as Cosmos 1408, which had been deactivated a long time ago, having been launched into orbit by the former Soviet Union in 1982. So far, zero losses. But it had “cockroach flies” on the International Space Station. Upon detecting the cloud of debris generated by the test, control centers in Houston and Moscow asked astronauts and cosmonauts to preemptively lodge in their capsules. The idea was to get them ready for a quick evacuation should the orbital complex be hit by some debris capable of causing depressurization or other serious damage.
The first pass was smooth. Nothing happened. The second one too, and then the crew were already released to return to the station, but keeping the gates between the modules closed to reduce risks. Every hour and a half, more or less, the orbital complex returned to make approximation of the cloud of garbage, in the flavor of the movie “Gravity”. Fortunately there wasn’t a chain reaction like the one seen in the feature film.
The problem was that the risk existed. The US State Department called the Russian test irresponsible. The Russian Defense Ministry said the debris kept miles away from the station and posed no danger. But the episode reminds us of how we are dealing with a fragile environment. A piece of garbage in orbit is something that stays there for a long time, like a projectile traveling at 27,000 km/h. Even though it’s small, it can do great damage.
And the biggest fear is that a cloud of debris will hit other satellites, each generating its own clouds, triggering a sequence of events that would end up with the Earth enveloped in a highly dangerous layer of space junk. This would have the potential to eliminate the feasibility of keeping satellites operational. Forget space telescopes, telecommunications, GPS, meteorology… Incalculable damage.
There’s no good guy in the story. Last week it was Russia. But in recent years we’ve seen similar tests being carried out by the US, India and China. As we continue on this climb, one day things are still going to end badly. Space nations should be focused on mitigating, not enhancing, the dangers of space junk. Before we can only grieve.
This column is published on Mondays in Folha Corrida.