Russian ASAT Debris Squalls Exacerbated by Starlink Satellite Launches

Loose debris from a Russian anti-satellite missile is wreaking some havoc in orbit as pieces of ex-spacecraft circle the planet with alarming speed.  The debris is left over from the destruction of the now-offline 2,200 kg signals intelligence satellite Cosmos 1408, by a Russian direct-ascent ASAT.  This debris has increased the number of close approaches with active spacecraft and new satellites being launched into orbit.

These close approaches are also known as “conjunction squalls”.

According to Dan Oltrogge, space junk resulting from anti-satellite weapons are a “pressing threat to security and sustainability).  As a matter of fact, Oltrogge notes there have been at least 6,000 close approaches—which are defined as being within 10 kilometers—involving more than 840 Starlink satellites. This is nearly one-third of the satellite constellation.

Oltrogge is the chief scientist at the space operations firm COMSPOC.  At the Secure World Foundation event, on August 8, he explained that “Conjunction squalls represent a step change in the number of conjunctions that a satellite or family of satellites experience with a fragmentation debris source.”

He further details that a common formation method involves a fragmentation event that can pollute an orbital plane.  Furthermore, he continues, “this plane later becomes coplanar with an active satelite constellation’s orbital plane.”

Unfortunately, this conjunction has only been exacerbated by the launch of new Starlink satellites, which SpaceX launched into polar orbit on July 10, from Vandenberg Space Force Base. They launched another set of these “Group 3” satellites on July 22; and another is set to launch on Aug 12.

In order to avoid a excess of conjunction squalls, Oltrogge has recommended that governments and space agencies “stop conducting diret ascent ASAT tests, and do not intentionally cause fragmentations to occur that create long-lived debris, which puts the spacecraft operator satellites at risk.”