WASHINGTON -- The United States on Monday (November 15) denounced Russia for conducting a "dangerous and irresponsible" missile strike that blew up one of its own satellites, creating a debris field in low-Earth orbit.
The cloud of debris forced the International Space Station (ISS) crew to take evasive action, raising concerns in Washington, which had not been informed in advance about the test.
The United States is discussing its response with partners and allies, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
"The safety and security of all actors seeking to explore and use outer space for peaceful purposes has been carelessly endangered by this test," he said.
The Russian direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile on Monday struck Russian satellite Cosmos 1408, the US Space Command said in a statement.
According to space industry analysis company Seradata, Cosmos 1408 is a 1982 Soviet signals intelligence satellite that has been defunct for several decades.
The test was only the fourth ever to hit a spacecraft from the ground.
"Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations," said US Space Command chief Gen. James Dickinson.
"The debris created by Russia's DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance manoeuvres," he said.
"Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behaviour is simply irresponsible."
ASATs are high-tech missiles possessed by few nations.
The Russian regime raised concern last year when it test-fired an ASAT in space on July 15, 2020, promoting rebukes from the United States and United Kingdom.
The Monday move reignited concerns about the growing space arms race, encompassing everything from the development of satellites capable of shunting others out of orbit to laser weapons.
"The Russian Federation recklessly conducted a destructive test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites," Blinken said.
The "dangerous and irresponsible test" generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris, he said, and will likely create hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris.
The crew aboard the orbital outpost -- four Americans, a German and two Russians -- were awakened and first asked to close the station's hatches, then take shelter in their return ships.
This is the standard "safe haven" alarm procedure in the event of an emergency that might force evacuation.
They made their way to the Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft, and remained there for about two hours, NASA said.
The ISS continues to pass near or through the debris cloud every 90 minutes.
In his strongly-worded remarks, Blinken said the danger was far from over, and the debris would continue to threaten satellites and activities on the ISS.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement he was "outraged by this irresponsible and destabilising action".
"With its long and storied history in human spaceflight, it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts" as well as Chinese "taikonauts" aboard China's space station, he said.
"The feeling among people in the space industry is that we have way too much debris up there already -- to deliberately generate more is just inexcusable," said Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell.
The first objects from the debris cloud should start to enter the atmosphere within a few months, but it could be up to 10 years before it clears up entirely, he said.
That could jeopardise what is an increasingly crowded region of space known as "low-Earth orbit".
In its initial assessment, US Space Command said the debris will remain in orbit "for years and potentially for decades, posing a significant risk to the crew on the ISS and other human spaceflight activities, as well as multiple countries' satellites".
New era of space weapons
Russia is increasingly flexing its muscles in space as it seeks to reassert global influence under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin.
Last year, the United Kingdom and United States accused Russia of testing a "nesting doll" satellite that opened up and released a smaller craft to stalk a US satellite.
Dickinson of the US Space Command accused Russia of "developing and deploying capabilities to actively deny access to and use of space by the United States and its allies and partners".
"Russia's tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons clearly demonstrate that Russia continues to pursue counterspace weapon systems that undermine strategic stability and pose a threat to all nations," he said.
China meanwhile is developing a weapon known as Shijian-17, with a robot arm capable of grappling space vessels, as part of its rapid expansion of its weapons arsenal, which could include up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027.
"Both China and Russia are increasingly building space into their military capabilities," US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said last week.
"They have directed-energy weapons that allow them to essentially blind sensors on various satellites," she said.
Despite these tensions, the United States and Russia have maintained strong space ties since the end of the Cold War, co-operating closely on the ISS, which they built together.