Mission Shakti debris puts International Space Station to risk: NASA

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NASA chief Jim Bridenstine called India’s destruction of one of its own satellites a “terrible, terrible thing” that could endanger the lives of astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). While addressing employees, Bridenstine showed his dismay by saying that the missile that shot down the satellite created at least 400 pieces of orbital debris, 60 among which were larger than 6-inches in size. The satellite was well below the International Space Station, however, 24 pieces of the debris were blasted above its apogee, creating a potential risk. “It’s unacceptable and NASA needs to be very clear about what its impact to us is,” Bridenstine said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the middle of ensuing national elections,  announced the success of Mission Shakti–a missile test that was aimed at destroying one of the nation’s satellite. The success of the mission made India the fourth country to have completed such a mission, after the US, Russia, and China. Indian government wrote that the test was carried out low enough to ensure any generated debris would fall back to earth within weeks.

A simulation has been made to show the destruction and the debris field created by the test. The risk to ISS has been increased by 44 percent over the last ten years, estimated NASA along with the US Strategic Command’s Combined Space Operations Center. Bridenstine later confirmed the safety of the astronauts saying that the ISS could be maneuvered if there is a need to avoid the debris. “The good thing is, it’s low enough in Earth orbit that over time this will all dissipate,” he said.

Probably the most infamous test of such kind was conducted by China in 2007, destroying a satellite at a much higher orbit of 537 miles, the debris of which still floats around the Earth and pose a threat to satellites and missions. Several nations including the US and China are working on a scheme to remove space junks by using lasers, harpoons, and tents.

The biggest threat that the space junk pose is “Kessler Syndrome,”– a scenario in which the density of objects in low Earth orbit (LEO) is high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade where each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions. Similar destruction has been showcased in the sci-fi movie Gravity, that forced astronauts to abandon the space shuttle and escape in a Chinese capsule.  “At the end of the day we have to be clear also that these activities are not sustainable or compatible with human spaceflight,” said Bridenstine.

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