While many people worry about the fate of the International Space Station, US military experts are most concerned about the November 15, 2021 Asat launch, so unlikely is Russia to “go after” the orbital complex. With this Asat shot, some observers wonder if the Russians have not prepared hostilities in space on the fringes of the conflict with Ukraine. Our explanations.
Space missions have always been peaceful
Relations between the Russians and their Western and Japanese partners in the International Space Station (ISS) program have always been cordial and pragmatic. As the European Space Agency, engaged in several programs with Russia, reminds us, ” even in times of strong political tensions, space missions have always been examples of peaceful and concrete cooperation in the field of science and technology, for the benefit of mankind ”.
But, it is to be feared that tomorrow space cooperation with Russia in new programs will be more difficult, if not impossible. That said, despite the strong tensions between Putin and Biden, it is obviously very unlikely that the master of the Kremlin will decide to “attack” the ISS as some statements by Russian officials and senior officials might suggest.
While Russia can easily disrupt the proper functioning of the orbital complex , or even de-orbit it out of control and drop it back to Earth, it’s not as simple as it sounds. As explained in a previous article, in January 2031, the end of life of the ISS, three Russian Progress cargo ships will be needed to deorbit it in a controlled manner above point Nemo. Today, the single Progress cargo ship docked at the ISS is not enough for this.
In the worst-case scenario, Putin could order the Russian cosmonauts aboard the ISS to evacuate it, then turn on the engines of the Progress by accelerating very strongly with a bias to bring it into as low an orbit as possible until at a stage where it would no longer be possible to reassemble it. Among the other possibilities, that of generating a very strong torque so as to make it spin on itself in an irretrievable way.
In both cases, NASA could do nothing. It has clearly demonstrated the theoretical feasibility of ascending the Station’s orbit using a Cygnus freighter , except that they are of no use for this type of maneuver because the ports on which the Cygnus moor are not not lined up the right way. This is also why the European Space Agency’s ATV moored in the same place as the Russian Progress cargo ships to ascend the Station’s orbit.
Conflict in Ukraine: what if the Russians had also prepared for hostilities in space
Let’s face it, the Russians won’t forcibly de-orbit the ISS because they have no way of controlling its re-entry so that what won’t be destroyed as it passes through the atmosphere could crash into Russian territory, Chinese or on one of its allies! Added to this is that the Russian part is still worth several billion dollars and that they intend to use it until 2030.
Nevertheless, the Russians do have a power of nuisance in low orbit. And this is perhaps where the situation could be most problematic for Americans and Europeans. According to several specialists, the Russians may have prepared a new form of asymmetric warfare with the Asat launch of November 15, 2021 when a missile destroyed one of their old electronic listening satellites. In itself, the destruction of a satellite in flight is not new but what has changed in this case, and very few people realized it at first, is that The ASAT launch had like hidden purpose to disrupt the proper functioning of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites which are in a complementary orbit.
The distribution of debris as produced by the explosion of the satellite was certainly intended to force the Starlink satellites to perform many maneuvers. You should know that the Russian debris generates bursts, clusters of alerts for many satellites! And that is unprecedented.
A cloud of debris with unprecedented behavior…
Usually, after the destruction of a satellite , the debris cloud has lost all its cohesion after 6 to 12 months, which does not seem to be the case with this cloud. In retrospect, one can think that the Asat firing of November 15 allowed the Russians, and this is a strong and rather surprising hypothesis, to train for today’s situation. Not to threaten the International Space Station but to disrupt the operation of many American satellites, whether civilian and military observation satellites or those of the Starlink constellation.
It should be noted that the impact against the satellite had the particularity of low speed increments so that the debris did not disperse as usual. It is clear the intelligence of the maneuver. The debris, with an inclination of about 82°, is also complementary to the 98° inclination which is the inclination of sun- synchronous satellites .
This orbit is used by many observation, meteorological or remote sensing satellites for example. As a result, this gives a very large number of collision risk alerts with, potentially, frontal collisions per package . As if a submachine gun were shooting hundreds of pieces of debris in the direction of a satellite!
Concretely, rather than frontally attacking an American military satellite, typically of the Keyhole type, the idea would be to destroy a Russian satellite which is nearby, so that the cloud of debris generated, subjects the satellite to “strafing”. debris in order…