Millions of naturally occurring micrometeoroids and man-made debris orbit the Earth. Orbital debris consists of remnants from previous missions. These items collide and explode creating additional pieces of debris that range from the size of a school bus down to the size of a grain of sand. These pieces of debris may seem innocuous but at hypervelocity speeds they can become killers. Credit: NASA.

A Russian weapons test created more than 1,500 pieces of highly dangerous space junk that is now threatening the seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station, Associated Press reported on Monday.

The State Department confirmed that the debris was from an old Russian satellite destroyed in Monday’s anti-satellite weapons test, the report said.

“It was dangerous. It was reckless. It was irresponsible,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price, adding that it threatened the interests of the whole world.

Earlier Monday, the four Americans, one German and two Russians on board were forced to seek shelter in their docked capsules because of the debris, the report said.

At least 1,500 pieces of the destroyed satellite were sizable enough to show up on radar, Price said. But countless other fragments were too small to track, yet still posed a danger to the space station as well as orbiting satellites.

“The test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations,” Price said for Air Force magazine.

“In addition, this test will significantly increase the risks to astronauts — and cosmonauts —on the International Space Station as well as to other human spaceflight activities.

“Russia’s dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of outer space and clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical.

“The United States will work with our allies and respond to Russia’s irresponsible act.”

He estimated “trackable” pieces of debris to be “at least somewhat sizable.”

When asked about what options the US might have to respond, Price said that aside from condemning the attack, he didn’t want “to get ahead of where we are,” and he mentioned that the department doesn’t always “telegraph specific measures,” Air Force magazine reported.

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby told reporters that Russia had not notified the US of the test in advance, which according to reports forced astronauts on the International Space Station to take shelter in return ships.

Russia recently opposed a United Nations resolution to “make recommendations on possible norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviors relating to threats by States to space systems.”

Gen. James Dickinson, Space Command head, issued a statement condemning the test, Breaking Defense reported.

“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” he said.

“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 maneuvers.

“Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”

US Space Command acknowledged in an earlier statement that it was aware of “a debris-generating event in outer space” and said it would “continue to ensure all space-faring nations have the information necessary to maneuver satellites if impacted.”

“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,” Air Force magazine reported.

In a later statement from the command, the debris “will remain in orbit for years and potentially for decades.”

Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who is widely followed for his expertise tracking and cataloging objects in Earth orbit, predicted that the full extent of such a debris field wouldn’t be known for a long time: 

“I would expect thousands of pieces of cataloged debris from a satellite the size of [Cosmos 1408] … However, it may take days to weeks for the first debris objects to be cataloged and years [for] them all to be located,” McDowell tweeted.

Only a few days earlier, the ISS crew had to maneuver out of the way of a piece of debris left over from China’s 2007 ASAT test.

However, Pavel Podvig, a senior research fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, Switzerland, told Breaking Defense that Russia up to now has never actually conducted a ground-based “kinetic kill” interception.

This fact, he suggested, might have been what motivated Moscow to do the test — simply to prove that it the Nudol could do the job it is designed for.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tweeted that a satellite the size of the Cosmos-1408, with a mass of some 1,750 kilograms, would likely result in “thousands” of pieces of “cataloged” debris — meaning debris bigger than the size of a softball.

However, as McDowell noted, it usually takes weeks for SPACECOM to gather up all the tracking data and release it via its public catalog of space objects online at

He said even tiny pieces of space debris, the size of a paint fleck, can damage a satellite.

Sources: Associated Press, Air Force magazine, Breaking Defense, NASA,