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Why Did Russia Test an Anti-Satellite Missile and Why Doesn’t China Condemn the Test?

Apogee (blue) and perigee (orange) of 253 of the 288 confirmed debris objects two days after the COSMOS 1408 breakup (source)

On November 15th, Russia used an anti-satellite missile to destroy COSMOS 1408, a defunct spy satellite. The explosion quickly created over 1,500 pieces of trackable debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces. As a precautionary measure, the astronauts on the International Space Station, two of whom are Russians, took shelter in escape shuttles during two orbits.

The anti-satellite test was widely criticized, but the Russian defense ministry released a statement saying “The U.S. knows for certain that the resulting fragments, in terms of test time and orbital parameters, did not and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities.”

That is simply not true, and there is no doubt that officials in the nation that brought us Sputnik knew it. While the explosion occurred above both the International and Chinese space stations, the fragment cluster instantly began disbursing. As shown above, two days later, some of the visible fragments were below the space stations, and all will remain in orbit for many years.

That raises the question—why did they do it? In space, as with nuclear war, mutually-assured destruction is the best guard against an attack, but Russia clearly had the ability to destroy a satellite without this test. Where would Russia be without GLONASS, their global navigation and positing system? Where would we all be without our Earth observation satellites?

Similarly, why hasn’t China condemned the act? China has a space station and plans for many satellites including a 12,992 satellite broadband constellation and they have established aggressive rules for space situational awareness and traffic management. Furthermore, the 14th five-year plan period (2021-25) of the China National Space Administration includes a section on “expanding space cooperation and enhancing the common well-being of humankind.” China has a lot to lose.

I can’t imagine why Russia destroyed COSMOS 1408 or why China has not denounced the destruction. Are Russia and China trying to slow the progress of SpaceX and other private competitors? Anne Applebaum has coined the term “Autocracy Inc” to describe China, Russia and several other nations as a club bound together by “a common desire to preserve and enhance their personal power and wealth.” She says the members support each other, and they don’t criticize each other.

I know I’m starting to sound like a Qanon conspiracy theorist, but I can’t think of any rational explanations.

Update Jan 25, 2022:

The Space Debris Monitoring and Application Center of the China National Space Administration warned of an “extremely dangerous rendezvous” between China’s Tsinghua Science satellite and Russia’s Cosmos 1408 debris. Liu Jing, a space debris expert, said the closest distance between Tsinghua’s satellite and the Russian debris was 14.5 meters, with a relative speed of 5.27 kilometers per second. There was no collision and subsequent data show the distance between the two objects has increased to five kilometers.

As far as I know, this is the first time the Chinese have spoken out against the Russian anti-satellite demonstration. (For more on the aftermath of the demonstration, see this post).

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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Todd Knarr  –  Nov 19, 2021 8:41 PM

Read Heinlein’s memoirs where he describes his visit to Soviet Russia. Management there hasn’t changed since. In fact I don’t think it’s really changed since the Tsars controlled things.

Options Ardan Michael Blum  –  Nov 24, 2021 11:10 PM

Either they are sharing test data, or simulating launch speed.

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