Satellite trackers have been working overtime to figure out just how much dangerous debris Russia created when it destroyed one of its own satellites early Monday — and the picture they’ve painted looks bleak. Multiple visual simulations of Russia’s anti-satellite, or ASAT, test show a widespread cloud of debris that will likely menace other objects in orbit for years.
Early this week, Russia launched a missile that destroyed the country’s Kosmos 1408 satellite, a large spacecraft that orbited the Earth roughly 300 miles up. The breakup of the satellite created at least 1,500 pieces of trackable fragments, according to the US State Department, as well as thousands of smaller pieces that cannot be tracked. All of those pieces are still in low Earth orbit, moving at thousands of miles an hour and posing a threat to any objects that might cross their path. Initially, that even included the International Space Station, with crew members on board forced to take shelter in their spacecrafts as the debris cloud from the satellite passed by the ISS a couple of times.
It’s going to take weeks or even months to fully understand just how bad the situation is, but early visualizations of the ASAT test created by satellite trackers show an extensive trail of space debris left in the wake of the breakup. The fragments appear like a dotted snake in orbit, stretching out and moving in roughly the same direction that Kosmos 1408 used to move around Earth. And there’s one thing the visualizers agree on: this snake of debris isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “There will be some potential collision risk to most satellites in [low Earth orbit] from the fragmentation of Cosmos 1408 over the next few years to decades,” LeoLabs, a private space tracking company in the US, wrote in a blog post.
Two visualizations created by the European Union’s Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) network and space software company AGI reveal what likely happened in the first moment of impact when Russia’s missile intercepted Kosmos 1408. They both show how the debris cloud grew instantly and spread throughout space. AGI’s simulation also shows just how close the cloud comes to intersecting with the International Space Station, validating NASA’s concerns and the agency’s decision to have the astronauts shelter in place.
Update: this video represents a simulation of the initial dispersion of the fragments resulting from the reported #ASAT test. The event has increased the collision risk of spacecraft in the LEO regime registered to #EUSST, hence impacting the safety of EU #space infrastructure. pic.twitter.com/iA3zRKNqr1— EUSST (@EU_SST) November 18, 2021
Another visualization created by Hugh Lewis, a professor of engineering at the University of Southampton specializing in space debris, shows just how widely the debris from Kosmos 1408 has spread out in space. Lewis explains that when Russia’s missile hit the satellite, each of the fragments that were created got a little kick, sending them to higher and lower altitudes. Each piece is moving at a different speed depending on the height of its orbit.
“Even though they start all together, what’s happening is that the ones in the bigger orbits take longer to go around the Earth, and the ones in the smaller orbits take less time to go around the Earth,” Lewis tells The Verge. “So the ones that are lower seem to move ahead of the ones that are in the higher orbits. And that’s what stretches it out.”
Lewis says that the cloud will continue to morph over time. The debris fragments in the lower orbits will fall to Earth and out of orbit more quickly, while the ones in higher orbits will stay in space much longer.
Final visualisation for the moment: #Cosmos1408 #SpaceDebris cloud passing over the Atlantic. Quality is not great but should give you an impression of what it would be like to pass near the cloud (YouTube version: https://t.co/0xoljxmiEU) pic.twitter.com/9s0looT6IW— Hugh Lewis (@ProfHughLewis) November 18, 2021
For now, Lewis’ visualization relies on simulations based on where we think these pieces of debris might be, given the size of Kosmos 1408 and the physics of a missile striking a satellite. However, the visualization will become more realistic as real-world data from the test trickles in. US Space Command is responsible for tracking objects in space, but it has yet to make any of the tracks from the ASAT test available to the public.
Our best hope for tracking this material comes from a mixture of different sensors — from ground-based radar stations to optical telescopes. However, it’s probably going to be some time before even the most sophisticated trackers know where everything is.
Meanwhile, LeoLabs wrote in a blog post that it has already calculated the paths for close to 300 fragments from the test, likely the biggest pieces from the breakup. The company notes that the objects in lower orbits should re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up with the next five years. However, the higher orbiting fragments could stay in orbit for decades. And as all of these satellites pieces decay in orbit over time, they will continue to pose a risk for the space station and other satellites. All it takes is just one collision with a fast-moving piece of debris to potentially knock out a functioning satellite.
“This is not going to be a short-lived problem,” says Lewis. “It’s going to be affecting space operations for at least this decade and the next one.”