What really happened during Russia’s anti-satellite missile test?

On Nov. 15, 2021, U.S. officials announced that they had detected a dangerous new debris field in orbit near Earth. Later in the day, it was confirmed that Russia had destroyed one of its old satellites in a test of an anti-satellite weapon. Wendy Whitman Cobb is a space security researcher. She explains what these weapons are and why the debris they create is a problem now – and in the future.

What do we know?

Anti-satellite weapons, commonly referred to as ASATs, are any weapon that can temporarily impair or permanently destroy an orbiting satellite. The one that Russia just tested is known as a direct ascent kinetic anti-satellite weapon. Russia launched an anti-satellite test that destroyed one of its older satellites. The satellite broke up and created thousands of pieces of debris in orbit, ranging in size from tiny specks up to pieces a few feet across. This space junk will linger in orbit for years, potentially colliding with other satellites as well as the International Space Station. The space station crew has already had to shelter in place as they passed near the debris cloud.

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