You can’t exactly see it from down here on Earth, but there’s a whole lot of junk floating around in the space around our planet. The vast majority of it is man-made, including pieces of satellites, entire defunct spacecraft, and bits and pieces of past space missions. Now, thanks to a hilariously bad decision by India, there’s even more of it.
In a new test of its growing space might, India decided to launch a missile to shoot down one of its own satellites. The country’s thinking was that the demonstration would be a message to the world that India is now “a major space power.” In reality the test created hundreds of pieces of space debris that now threaten the safety of future missions, and might even pose a danger to astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
NASA and other space groups were quick to track the debris created by the missile and subsequent destruction of the satellite. The satellite itself was in low orbit, but the blast pushed many pieces of debris into and above the orbit of the ISS.
“What we are tracking right now, objects big enough to track — we’re talking about 10 centimeters (six inches) or bigger — about 60 pieces have been tracked,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement to NASA staff. “That is a terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris at an apogee that goes above the International Space Station. That kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight.”
Bridenstine went on to call the move “unacceptable,” and the agency is now tracking around two dozen larger pieces of debris that it now has to account for when tracking the path of the space station around the Earth. Even a relatively small piece of space debris can cause huge problems for astronauts aboard the ISS as well as those embarking on later missions that will take them out of Earth’s atmosphere.
The majority of the risk to ISS inhabitants will peak over the next ten days, NASA says. After that point much of the debris will have fallen back to Earth, but some of it will remain indefinitely. In any case, it was a dumb move, and India’s space program just created a major headache for the rest of the world.