So Matthias Maurer had hardly imagined his start on the International Space Station ISS. On Monday, November 15, Maurer’s third day in space, the seven-person crew had been instructed by ground control to close the hatches between the modules of the station and, to be on the safe side, to go into the docked space capsules, where they had to wait two hours – ready for a fall back to earth in the event of serious damage to their station. Because a cloud of debris crossed the orbit of the space station, which was circling at a height of 420 kilometers.
The scrap was approaching at a slightly higher orbit of 480 kilometers above the earth’s surface, but in addition to the around 1500 fragments visible to the surveillance systems, a hundred thousand smaller fragments were to be expected in a much wider stray field. The ISS astronauts only resumed their routine on Wednesday. The ISS still encounters the debris field, which is stretching further and further along its trajectory, every 90 minutes and still represents a danger, albeit a danger that will diminish over time. The Chinese station module Tianhe is in a somewhat lower orbit in about 380 kilometers altitude and is therefore less endangered.
The Russian military just wanted to save money
The origin of the shrapnel did not remain hidden for long. It turned out that the Russian military had tried an A-235 Nudol anti-satellite weapon on a Soviet-era reconnaissance satellite over the Severnaya Zemlya arctic archipelago. This is not the first time that generals have willfully exacerbated the garbage problem in lower earth orbit.
The Chinese were worst off in January 2007 when they smashed an old weather satellite at an altitude of 800 kilometers. The scrap will still circle this high up until the end of this century and endanger people and technology.
In March 2019, an Indian weapon test destroyed a target object that was probably launched for this purpose at a height of 300 kilometers. Thanks to the low altitude, most of the fragments have now penetrated the earth’s atmosphere and burned up. The Russians apparently found it too expensive to launch a suitable test target into such a low orbit and so they preferred to endanger the people on the ISS – including two of their own cosmonauts.
Such incidents are, of course, only the excesses of a larger problem that arises from the fact that space – similar to the oceans or the atmosphere – does not belong to anyone, but is used by everyone. You can’t over-fish the universe, but you can litter it – and that’s why you do it. The “tragedy of the commons”, which is often discussed by game theorists and environmental politicians, can also be found here. Sanctions-reinforced regulation through international agreements would be nice, but in the current geopolitical climate it is probably a rather distant dream. It is to be feared that something will only happen once a specific question of liability arises.