Shotgun of debris from India satellite explosion threatens ISS astronauts

2 Apr 2019

Image: © dottedyeti/

India’s celebration of the destruction of one of its satellites in orbit has been condemned by NASA, claiming the debris threatens astronauts on the ISS.

A new runner appeared to have joined the space race last week after India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, announced to the world that the country had successfully shot down one of its defunct satellites, becoming the fourth nation to do so after the US, Russia and China.

At the time, the prime minister said that the satellite was in a low orbit at a height of 300km. However, soon after this announcement, the decision to destroy the satellite drew fierce criticism from politicians as a stunt ahead of a contentious general election.

Now, NASA has added its own fury over the event from a scientific perspective, saying the resulting debris from the explosion puts the lives of astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) at risk.

According to The Guardian, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine addressed employees about the incident, saying that the debris is large enough to cause serious damage, but mostly too small to track. This comes after India’s ministry of external affairs had assured critics that the test was conducted in low orbit to prevent any debris from remaining in orbit in the long term.

“What we are tracking right now, objects big enough to track – we’re talking about 10cm or bigger – about 60 pieces have been tracked,” Bridenstine said. Despite the explosion occurring in a lower orbit than the ISS, 24 of the estimated number of pieces are believed to be on a trajectory that would put them above the altitude of the space station.

“That is a terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris at an apogee that goes above the ISS,” Bridenstine said. “That kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight. It’s unacceptable and NASA needs to be very clear about what its impact to us is.”

After crunching the numbers, physicists predict that the risk of collision with the ISS is now 44pc more than it was prior to the explosion, but this will likely decrease over time as pieces burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Since Sputnik became the first artificial satellite to enter Earth’s orbit in 1957, humankind has launched thousands of spacecraft, resulting in a surge in space junk surrounding our planet. The European Space Agency estimates that there are now approximately 900,000 objects larger than a marble in orbit.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic