Award Winning Blog

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

A RUSSIA Acronym: Ruthlessly Undermining Small Satellite International Access

            In a universally contemned, knucklehead move, the Russian government used an anti-satellite missile to pulverize a deactivated satellite located in a low earth orbit 40 miles below the known trajectory of the International Space Station.  See, e.g.,;;

            Before explaining how this bonehead action did not have to risk life and property, let us make two contestable assumptions for the sake of argument:

1)         Anti-satellite technology has some legitimate and lawful, national defense uses, so the Russian technology test comports with the global treaty limiting space exploration and exploitation to “peaceful uses” “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries.”  See Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, available at:; and

2)         Russian personnel determined that the test would not damage the International Space Station, or trigger any other sort of liability for harm, even though over 1500 additional pieces of space debris were created at a location certain to fall down toward earth and cross over the Space Station orbit.  See Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects; available at:

Arguably, nations need to test anti-satellite technology under actual orbital conditions rather than blow up a mockup satellite on the ground.  There must be some benefit in examining the breadth and depth of a blown-up satellite debris field.  But did Russia have to target a dead satellite so close to, and above, the Space Station?

           News flash: both operational and out of service satellites experience gravity that pulls them down toward earth.  Most active satellites use “station keeping” fuel to maintain orbit, particularly geostationary satellites designed to last over ten years and to hover in a fixed location 22,300 miles above the equator.  Low earth orbiting satellites typically have short useable lives with no station keeping capability.  Their close proximity to earth offers a different value proposition: lower costs to build, launch and access, but short usable lives and the need to launch thousands of small “cubesats” to achieve ubiquitous coverage.

           Russian officials have yet to explain why they could not have identified and targeted a dead satellite located well below the Space Station.  Every other publicly disclosed satellite explosion has occurred in a location not likely to trigger any immediate collision, even though the debris field might eventually increase the odds.   The U.S., China, and India have complied with this safeguard.

            Luckily, the occupants of the Space Station, including two Russian cosmonauts, avoided harm, but the odds for a collision increase, even without the deliberate increase in the amount of space junk.  New broadband low earth orbiting satellite constellations, operate near each other and number in the thousands.  Even in low earth orbit, only a few hundred miles from earth, tiny specks of debris travel at speeds in excess of 15,000 miles per hour.

            If you have had a car windshield crack from a stone thrown at it by a truck, you can appreciate the potential for damage from small objects with high velocity. In low earth orbit low gravity and extreme speed combine to create the real potential for more than a crack or divot.  The worse case scenario, known as the Kepler Syndrome, (see renders most, if not all, of space unable to support satellite networks, because of the ever increasing risk of collisions.

            Way to go Russia!