WASHINGTON — Russia’s denials that debris caused by an anti-satellite missile test poses a threat to spacecraft and astronauts are disingenuous, said Sue Gordon, former principal deputy director of national intelligence. 

“No one understands the space environment as well as Russia does,” Gordon said Nov. 16 during a Center for Strategic and International Studies online forum. 

“So let’s not be confused about whether they didn’t understand the likely impact of their action,” she said. “It’s not that they didn’t understand orbital dynamics or that they didn’t understand what was happening in that band,” Gordon added. “These are very experienced space actors.”

The United States and other nations condemned the Nov. 15 anti-satellite test in low Earth orbit, where an interceptor missile was launched to destroy one of Russia’s own derelict satellites. 

The destruction of that satellite created at least 1,500 pieces of trackable debris. According to the Secure World Foundation, this debris field will expand in size and spread in a ring around the Earth that will likely remain on orbit to threaten other space objects for years to come. 

“Regardless of rationale, to deliberately create orbital debris of this magnitude is extremely irresponsible. Orbital debris poses an indiscriminate risk to everyone’s satellites in orbit, as well as the human lives on the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong Space Station,” said SWF. 

Kevin O’Connell, former director of the U.S. Department of Commerce office of space commerce, said at the CSIS event that the test was “an incredibly irresponsible move by the Russians, obviously, and terribly disappointing” to the entire space economy. “And it just reaffirms that we have to stay on track to continue American leadership practices, and continue to leverage the private sector very heavily.”

O’Connell is on board of advisors of Kayhan Space, a startup that developed an autonomous collision avoidance system for satellite operators.

He made the case that the debris problem requires better visibility of what’s in orbit. “We’re about to see the emergence of space-based debris sensing capabilities that will complement the ones that are on the ground,” said O’Connell. “And we’re going to need all of the eyes in ears that we can in space to monitor the debris, to help people stay safe in space, and then enable the Department of Defense to do the things that it wants to do in space.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...