Russian Weapons Test Created 1,500 Pieces of Space Junk Threatening Space Station: U.S.

A Russian weapons test generated more than 1,500 pieces of space junk that now pose a threat to the seven astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station (ISS), according to U.S. officials.

The State Department said that the debris came from an old Russian satellite that was destroyed by a missile, the Associated Press reported.

"It was dangerous. It was reckless. It was irresponsible," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

Four American astronauts arrived at the ISS Thursday night, joining one German and two Russians already on board. The crew members were all forced to take shelter in their docked space capsules earlier on Monday because of the threat posed by the debris, AP reported.

Price said that while 1,500 pieces of the debris were visible under radar and with telescopes, an unknown number of other pieces may have been too small to track. These smaller fragments can still do sizable damage if orbiting at 17,500 mph, while larger pieces can be extremely destructive in a collision.

"We are going to continue to make very clear that we won't tolerate this kind of activity," Price said, adding that the U.S. "repeatedly raised with Russian counterparts our concerns for a potential satellite test."

The heightened peril from the debris fragments could linger over the next couple days, potentially causing more interruptions in the astronauts' work, NASA Mission Control said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

SpaceX Capsule
Space junk is threatening the seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station and forcing them to seek shelter in their docked capsules. The U.S. Space Command says it's tracking a field of orbiting debris, the apparent result of some satellite break-up event. Above, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station for docking on April 24, 2021, in this photo made available by NASA. NASA via AP

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who's midway through a yearlong mission, called it "a crazy but well-coordinated day" as he bid Mission Control good night.

"It was certainly a great way to bond as a crew, starting off with our very first work day in space," he said.

The U.S. Space Command said it was tracking the field of orbiting debris. NASA had made no comment by late afternoon, and there was no word late Monday from Russia about the missile strike.

A similar weapons test by China in 2007 also resulted in countless debris. One of those pieces threatened to come dangerously close to the space station last week. While it later was dismissed as a risk, NASA had the station move anyway.

Anti-satellite missile tests by the U.S. in 2008 and India in 2019 were conducted at much lower altitudes, well below the space station.

Until Monday, the Space Command already was tracking some 20,000 pieces of space junk, including old and broken satellites from around the world.

Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said it will take days if not weeks and months to catalogue the latest wreckage and confirm their orbits. The fragments will begin to spread out over time, due to atmospheric drag and other forces, he said in an email.

The space station is at especially high risk because the test occurred near its orbit, McDowell said. But all objects in low-Earth orbit—including China's three-person space station and even the Hubble Space Telescope—will be at "somewhat enhanced risk" over the next few years, he noted.

John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the most immediate concern was the space debris. Beyond that, the United States is monitoring "the kinds of capabilities that Russia seems to want to develop which could pose a threat not just to our national security interest but to the security interests of other space-faring nations."

Earlier in the day, the Russian Space Agency said via Twitter that the astronauts were ordered into their docked capsules, in case they had to make a quick getaway. The agency said the crew was back doing routine operations, and the space station's commander, Russian Anton Shkaplerov, tweeted: "Friends, everything is regular with us!"

But the cloud of debris posed a threat on each passing orbit—or every 1 1/2 hours—and all robotic activity on the U.S. side was put on hold. German astronaut Matthias Maurer also had to find a safer place to sleep than the European lab.

SpaceX Launch
A Russian weapons test generated more than 1,500 pieces of space junk that now pose a threat to the seven astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station, according to U.S. officials. Above, a SpaceX Falcon9 rocket, with the Crew Dragon capsule attached, lifts off from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39-A on November 15, 2020, in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Chris O'Meara/AP Photo