LAS VEGAS — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson spoke with his Russian counterpart a day after a Russian antisatellite test, as others in the Russian government dismissed the threat to space sustainability that test created.
Dmitry Rogozin, the director general of Roscosmos, tweeted that he spoke by phone with Nelson. The conclusion of that discussion, he wrote, was that “we are moving on, ensuring the safety of our crews on the ISS, making joint plans.”
The call took place a day after a Russian direct-ascent ASAT intercepted and destroyed a defunct Russian satellite, Cosmos-1408. The destruction of that test created more than 1,500 pieces of tracked debris, according to U.S. Space Command, and likely a far larger number of smaller, untracked debris objects.
The test was immediately condemned by the U.S. government and allies. The Russian government was initially silent about the test but confirmed Nov. 16 it took place.
“We’ve really tested a successful forward-looking system. It hit the old satellite,” Sergei Shoigu, Russian defense minister, said in a statement. He added that “the resulting fragments do not pose any threat to space activities.”
That assessment is not shared by U.S. officials. “Spoke with Roscosmos DG @Rogozin expressing dismay over the danger our astronauts and cosmonauts continue to face on the International Space Station,” Nelson tweeted in response to Rogozin. “It’s critical that we ensure the safety of our people and assets in space – now and into the future.”
Neither NASA nor Roscosmos provided additional information about the call, or a meeting in Moscow Nov. 16 between Rogozin and several NASA officials, planned before the ASAT test, to discuss ISS cooperation. Roscosmos issued an “information statement” Nov. 16 that did not mention the ASAT test but instead expressed its commitment to safe space operations.
“Ensuring crew safety has always been and remains our top priority,” Roscosmos stated. “We are convinced that only joint efforts by all spacefaring nations can ensure the safest possible coexistence and activities in outer space.”
Condemnations of the test continued to roll in Nov. 16 from governments, companies and organizations. “The intentional destruction of objects in orbit is irresponsible and threatens our common future in space, endangering human lives and the stability and sustainability of the space environment,” said Axiom Space, the commercial space station developer, in a statement.
The Secure World Foundation, an organization devoted to space sustainability issues, noted other countries have also performed destructive ASAT tests. “We call upon the United States, Russia, China, and India to declare unilateral moratoriums on further testing of their antisatellite weapons that could create additional orbital debris and to work with other countries towards solidifying an international ban on destructive ASAT testing,” they said in a Nov. 16 statement.
Some hope the ASAT test will provide new momentum to efforts by the Department of Commerce to set up a civil space traffic management system. “This reckless act only reinforces the urgency of addressing the growing orbital debris problem, as well as the need to develop a national space traffic management (STM) system,” said Dan Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), in a statement. “While a few initial steps have been taken, critical elements remain unresolved, which hinders the ability of U.S. industry to anticipate what will be required for the responsible use of space.”
More condemnation of the test came during a panel at the AIAA’s ASCEND conference Nov. 16. “This is a global commons. You don’t shoot down a satellite. All you do is turn it into small pieces of debris that stay dangerously in orbit, far faster than the speed of a bullet, zinging around for potentially long periods of time,” said Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance. “There has to be consequences for that kind of behavior.”
Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, was on the same panel and reiterated comments he made at the conference the day before. “The antisatellite test that the Russians did is a huge mess,” he said. “That was an overt act. That wasn’t an erroneous collision. That was a purposeful collision that created a huge mess for us. That’s the kind of stuff we need to focus governments on.”