Russian Space Debris Almost Obliterates European Satellite

The European Space Agency (ESA) said one of its satellites had to conduct an emergency maneuver to dodge space debris this week after Russia deliberately blew up one of its defunct satellites last year.

The ESA satellite in question was Sentinel-1A, an Earth observation satellite launched in 2014.

The space agency wrote in a tweet: "On Monday, for the first time, we performed a set of manoeuvres to avoid a high-risk collision with space debris created in the Cosmos 1408 anti-satellite test last year."

The agency said it was a "difficult" avoidance maneuver to prevent a head-on collision. Dodging space junk is something that satellite operators have to be prepared for, but this situation was unique in that the situation was hard to avoid and presented itself with only 24 hours' warning, the ESA added.

Cosmos 1408 was a Soviet electronic and signals intelligence satellite that was launched in 1982. Last year, when the satellite was nearly 40 years old, Russia controversially blew it to pieces as part of an anti-satellite missile test.

The test was criticized by space experts because of the huge cloud of orbital debris it generated. Bits and pieces of space junk left in orbit can cause serious safety concerns for other objects in orbit including operational satellites and manned space vehicles, since they're left whizzing round our planet at thousands of miles per hour.

The cloud of debris generated by the Cosmos 1408 explosion included around 1,500 pieces that were big enough to be tracked, according to NASA. What's more, these pieces were sent flying in all directions rather than in the predictable orbit that the old satellite was already in.

Space situational awareness company SpaceNav calculated that some of the largest pieces of debris had reached altitudes as high as 680 miles above Earth and as low as 185 miles within just a couple of days of the missile strike, ArsTechica reported last year. For comparison, the original Cosmos 1408 satellite sat at an altitude of about 300 miles.

Melanie Stricklan, co-founder and chief executive of Slingshot Aerospace, told Ars Technica at the time: "This was clearly a reckless event."

In relation to this week's Cosmos 1408 debris dodge, the ESA said the incident "highlights the devastating risks to the whole space environment from the (intentional) creation of space debris."

Last year, the debris also caused alarm for people on board the International Space Station (ISS) who had to take shelter temporarily in case the station was hit. Thankfully the station was OK.

Space junk
A file illustration depicts space junk orbiting the Earth. Space debris can pose safety risks to manned missions and remote satellites. johan63/Getty