More than a year after India performed an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, debris from the impact continues to threaten the safety of crews aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
In late March 2019, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the country had successfully conducted an ASAT missile test. The test destroyed what Modi described as “a live satellite” orbiting at an altitude of 300 kilometers.
Following the test, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed that the test had resulted in more than 400 medium to large pieces of debris. Most worryingly, it was found that several pieces of larger debris had been propelled into orbits that cross that of the ISS. If even one piece should strike the station, it risks the safety of the crew onboard and billions of dollars in damages.
In the face of international condemnation, Modi assured the world that any debris created during the test would decay and burn up in the atmosphere within 45 days. This estimate proved to be wildly inaccurate.
On March 27, 2020, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics revealed on Twitter that 10 pieces of debris large enough to track still remain in orbit. At least 8 pieces of the remaining debris are expected to decay and burn up before the end of the year. However, the last piece of debris isn’t expected to reenter the atmosphere until March 2028, almost a decade after the test.
As more countries become capable of dealing critical blows to assets in space, tests like these are unlikely to be a thing of the past. With more and more debris in low Earth orbit, it will become increasingly dangerous to operate satellites in this region of space.