The US strongly condemned a Russian anti-satellite test on Monday, calling it “a reckless and dangerous act” and added that it “won’t tolerate” behavior that puts the national interests of several countries at risk.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the test “will significantly increase the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station, as well as to other human spaceflight activities,” adding that “Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of outer space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weapons and weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical.”
Price said the US would consult with allies and partners on a response, adding that the test generated “hundreds of thousands” of pieces of orbital debris.
“The test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital, orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations,” Price said during a State Department press briefing.
“I don’t want to get to get ahead of specific measures that we may pursue, that our partners and allies may pursue, but we are going to continue to make very clear that we won’t tolerate this kind of activity,” Price said, adding that the US wanted “to make very clear why this is so dangerous, why this is so, such irresponsible conduct on the part of a nation state.”
Price said the US had spoken to senior Russian officials several times to warn them about the danger of such a test but would not say whether there had been a formal demarche, or formal diplomatic communication to Moscow.
Earlier Monday, US Space Command confirmed that a rare and potentially dangerous “debris-generating event” took place but did not provide details or mention Russia.
A US official said a ground-based missile was launched at a target in orbit, which would be notable because only a handful of successful anti-satellite weapon tests have been carried out by the US, Russia, China and India.
“We are actively working to characterize the debris field and will continue to ensure all space-faring nations have the information necessary to maneuver satellites if impacted,” a Space Command spokesperson said. “We are also in the process of working with the interagency, including the State Department and NASA, concerning these reports and will provide an update in the near future.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters at a Monday press briefing that the most immediate concern from the Russian anti-satellite test is the “debris itself, which is now floating out there, and could become a hazard.”
“Obviously we share the concern that our State Department colleagues stressed earlier today about this test,” Kirby said. “The most immediate concern is the debris itself, which is now floating out there, and could become a hazard, including to the International Space Station, so there’s concerns about the debris itself.”
Kirby said the Pentagon is watching “closely the kinds of capabilities that Russia seems to want to develop.”
“We watch closely the kinds of capabilities that Russia seems to want to develop which could pose a threat not just to our national security interest, but the security interests of other space-faring nations,” Kirby said. “And again, we’ve been very clear, we would like to see norms for space, so that it can be used responsibly by all space-faring nations.”
The incident comes at a time of increased tensions between the US and Russia. US officials have publicly sounded the alarm about Russia’s buildup of troops near its border with Ukraine and joined Europe in expressing concern about the migrant crisis on the border with Belarus, which European officials have described as a man-made crisis that Belarus has created with Russian backing as an act of “hybrid war” against Europe.
On Monday, the crew on board the International Space Station had to quickly don their spacesuits and jump into their spacecrafts in case the station was hit by some passing debris, according to Russia’s space agency, ROSCOSMOS. It remains unclear if that debris was generated by the Russian anti-satellite weapons test.
When asked if the US knew whether the debris mentioned in the Russian statement had been generated by Moscow’s test, and about reports that staff on the International Space Station had to seek shelter, Price referred reporters to Russia and stressed that both American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts were affected.
NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
There are currently seven astronauts on the space station, including NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov as well as the newly arrived Crew 3 mission team, NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer.
On Monday morning, Shkaplerov tweeted, “Friends, everything is regular with us! We continue to work according to the program.”
The space station is at risk of impact from objects too small to be tracked as it orbits 220 nautical miles above the Earth. These tiny objects could be pieces of rock, micrometeorites, dust particles or even flecks of paint that chip off of satellites.
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