The head of NASA, administrator Jim Bridenstine, has called a recent Indian anti-satellite missile test, which destroyed a satellite in low Earth orbit and blasted 400 pieces of debris into space, a "terrible, terrible thing".
"That kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight," said Bridenstine, speaking at a livestreamed Town Hall gathering of NASA employees. "It's unacceptable and NASA needs to be very clear about what its impact to us is."
India announced that it had successfully carried out "Mission Shakti", an anti-satellite missile test on March 27, destroying one of the country's satellites. The success of the mission made India only the fourth nation to complete such a test, following previous tests conducted by the US, Russia and China.
In the official press release, India's Ministry of External Affairs stated the test was carried out in the "lower atmosphere" to ensure there were no space debris and even if there were debris generated, it would fall back to Earth within weeks — but the debris field may still be dangerous.
"Claims that destructive events like this are fine because the fragments will soon be incinerated are deliberately misleading, in my opinion," says Alice Gorman, an Australian space archaeologist and debris expert. "Any fragmentation event, whether intended or accidental, increases the risks of collision with functioning satellites."
During the NASA Town Hall, Bridenstine noted that India's satellite destruction created over 400 pieces of debris and NASA is currently tracking 60 of those. A subset of those actually swing into an orbit above the ISS, potentially endangering the station and the astronauts within if it were to collide with the station.
"The risk to the International Space Station was increased by 44 percent," said Bridenstine.
Notably, the station does have emergency procedures in place, should NASA spot junk headed straight for the space base. Generally, the crew members jump into the "lifeboats" on the station: the capsules that provide them passage to and from Earth. If the station were hit, they could be jettisoned off. Fortunately, while the astronauts aboard have taken refuge in the capsule before, they've never had to be evacuated.
As for the recent satellite destruction, it's unlikely such a scenario would occur.
"The good thing is it's low enough that in Earth orbit that over time this will all dissipate," Bridenstine said, contrasting this incident with a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test which created a debris field that is still circling the Earth.
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