Russia has admitted to destroying one of its satellites during a missile test but rejected US accusations that it had endangered the International Space Station.
US officials on Monday accused Moscow of “dangerous and irresponsible behavior” after it conducted an anti-satellite weapons test that threatened the lives of the seven astronauts on board the ISS.
The move reignited concerns about an escalating arms race in space, encompassing everything from laser weapons to satellites capable of shunting others out of orbit.
On Tuesday, the Russian defence ministry said it had “successfully conducted a test, as a result of which the Russian spacecraft ‘Tselina-D’, which had been in orbit since 1982, was destroyed”.
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, later said the launch used a “promising” system that “accurately” struck its target.
“The fragments that formed do not pose any threat to space activity,” he added, as quoted by Russian news agencies.
When the gravity of the situation became clear on Monday, the astronauts aboard the ISS – four Americans, one German, and two Russians – were ordered to immediately seek shelter in their docked capsules.
A dramatic recording captured the moment astronauts put on their spacesuits before scrambling to a re-entry craft after the anti-satellite missile test sent a cloud of more than 1,500 pieces of debris flying through space.
“We can support you getting into suits at your discretion, it’s your call … and head up 15 minutes to the next debris field pass TCA [time of closest approach],” said a mission controller in Nasa’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“We are a minute and a half from the next debris field transit at this point,” a mission controller said to the astronauts during one pass. “This is going to be a four-minute transit,” the controller added.
The astronauts spent two hours in the two capsules, eventually emerging to only have to close and reopen hatches to the station’s individual labs on every orbit, or one and a half hours, as they passed near or through the space debris.
The Russian military said it was carrying out planned activities to fortify its defense capabilities but has denied that the test was dangerous.
“The United States 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,” the military said.
The confirmation of the US claims came moments after Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, had denied that Moscow had endangered the ISS, while also charging that it was “hypocrisy” to allege that Russia creates risks for peaceful activities in space.
The chief of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, said he held a “detailed” phone call with the Nasa chief, Bill Nelson, on Tuesday evening. “In short … we are moving on, ensuring the safety of our crews on the ISS and making joint plans,” Rogozin announced on Twitter.
France condemned the weapons test, describing it in a statement on Tuesday as “destabilising, irresponsible and likely to have consequences for a very long time in the space environment and for all actors in space.”