Launched into space in 1982, in the midst of the Cold War, Cosmos-1408 was a former Soviet surveillance satellite, a beautiful 2.2-ton beast that sailed 465 kilometers above our heads. Like all large bodies moving in orbit, it was tracked by radar. Monday, November 15, Cosmos-1408 was suddenly no longer visible on the screens. Instead, some 1,500 more objects at least 10 centimeters in diameter appeared, a cloud of debris beginning to scatter through space.
The first consequence was an alert aboard the International Space Station (ISS), which is 424 kilometers above sea level and whose trajectory was approaching the debris of Cosmos-1408. These could turn into dangerous projectiles, given the very high speeds at which spacecraft advance. The seven current occupants of the ISS – four Americans, two Russians and one German – immediately applied emergency procedures. First of all by closing most of the airlocks which connect the different elements of the station, in order to avoid total depressurization in the event that one of them is pierced, then by going to shelter in the two spaceships which are docked to the ISS, the Russian Soyuz (three people) and the American “Crew Dragon” of SpaceX (four astronauts). They remained cloistered there for two hours, ready to unhook themselves from the station.
On Tuesday November 16, Russia admitted having deliberately destroyed Cosmos-1408 during an anti-satellite missile (summarized under the acronym ASAT). The United States, however, did not wait to question Moscow and rule out the thesis of an accidental explosion. Already on Monday, US Space Command, the US military command in charge of space forces, issued a statement beginning as follows: “Russia tested a direct-ascension anti-satellite missile (DA-ASAT) on November 15, 2021, Moscow time, which struck a Russian satellite (Cosmos-1408) and created a field of debris in low earth orbit. ” According to Christophe Bonnal, researcher at the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) and specialist in space debris, “ the ASAT is most likely a Nudol missile that took off from the Russian base in Plesetsk ”, located 800 kilometers north of Moscow.
“Russia has shown a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations. (…) Space activities underpin our way of life, and this type of behavior is simply irresponsible ”, sharply explained the Head of US Space Command, General James Dickinson. Same story in the press release published by Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA: “Given its long and rich history of human spaceflight, it is inconceivable that Russia would endanger not only American astronauts and those of the international partners of the ISS, but also its own cosmonauts. Its actions are reckless and dangerous, also threatening the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board. All nations have a responsibility to prevent the deliberate creation of space debris by ASTs. “
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