The U.S. State Department and NASA officials have condemned the Russian missile test for creating a cloud of thousands of debris pieces that now orbit the planet, potentially endangering the International Space Station and other satellites.
“Everybody, not only the ISS, now has to deal with it and avoid the bigger pieces and trying to weather the small ones,” said Dr. Caroline Frueh, an associate professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue. “On the other hand if a small one hits your satellite battery you become debris yourself, very suddenly.”
Even tiny pieces of space debris can pose a huge problem. Frueh said the debris is moving at speeds of up to 10,000-15,000 miles per hour.
“That’s faster than when you shoot a gun,” Freuh said. “That’s what’s making it so dangerous.”
The crew of the ISS reportedly took shelter for the first two hours following the missile test. NASA officials said the station passes by the debris cloud every 90 minutes.
Frueh, who has contributed to databases monitoring leftover space junk, said that space debris is a growing problem. She said given that some space debris can take thousands of years to finally fall back to earth, it’s important to reduce how much is getting left in orbit.
“If we’re clogging it up more and more, the effects of collisions are much more severe because the pieces can hit a lot more satellites,” she said. “Anti-satellite tests are especially annoying because that’s creating space debris at leisure.”
At about 500 kilometers — or 310 miles — up, it can take about 25 years for an object to fall back to earth. At 800 kilometers, it could take an object over one hundred years to fall back to earth. And at 1,200 kilometers, it could take around 2,000 years to fall from orbit.
Frueh said an object’s altitude in orbit will determine how long it takes to fall back to earth.