Early Monday morning, a field of debris hurtled at some 17,000 miles per hour through the part of space where a derelict Russian satellite, Cosmos 1408, once orbited. Later that day, US State Department officials claimed that the 1,500-plus bits of flotsam originated from a Russian test of an anti-satellite missile. The risks of so much floating junk immediately became apparent: The fragments flew dangerously close to the International Space Station, forcing the crew to take shelter in the least vulnerable parts of the spacecraft.
The situation could’ve played out like the scene in the 2013 movie Gravity in which an astronaut, played by Sandra Bullock, flees the ISS as it’s destroyed by a massive clump of orbiting debris. The real shower of shrapnel missed the ISS, but it continued to make close passes every 90 minutes or so. Some of it will likely remain in orbit for decades. Russian officials, who on Tuesday confirmed the weapons test, claim the fragments aren’t a hazard for space activity.
US officials think otherwise. “The debris created by Russia's [anti-satellite test] 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 maneuvers,” stated General James Dickinson, head of the US Space Command, in a press release on Monday. “Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”
The Pentagon currently tracks 27,000 pieces of debris in orbit, which include everything from dead spacecraft and used-up rocket boosters to the detritus left behind from satellite-destroying missile tests like this one, which have also previously been conducted by China, the US, and India. Just one week ago, the ISS had to swerve slightly to dodge a close pass by a piece of debris from a Chinese 2007 anti-satellite test. Millions of untrackable fragments of trash smaller than 10 centimeters across orbit as well, adding to the risks. Finding ways to address this growing halo of space junk, before some orbits, relied upon by satellite companies and space agencies, become so polluted that they’re no longer usable, has now become a major goal of the US government as well as international institutions.
Managing worsening space traffic, and avoiding making more junk, have long been high priorities for NASA and the United Nations. But so far, their efforts mostly focus on prevention and don’t deal with what’s already out there. To actively tackle the problem, today the Space Force’s technology arm, known as SpaceWERX, will begin recruiting the private sector to develop proposals for actually removing debris via a new program called Orbital Prime. SpaceWERX will initially award dozens of contracts worth $250,000 each, likely starting early next year, to companies that have the ability to whisk trash out of harm’s way, as well as to perform other duties like refueling and repairing orbiting spacecraft to prevent them from becoming derelict.