WASHINGTON — The U.S. military for years has watched Russia’s attempts to demonstrate it could destroy a satellite with a ground-based weapon, so the Nov. 15 missile test that blew up a satellite in orbit did not come as a complete shock, officials said Dec. 4 at the Reagan National Defense Forum.

“These advances in capabilities are concerning, they are not a surprise,” Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations of U.S. Space Force, said during a panel discussion at the forum held at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California. 

Russia’s missile intercepted one of its own defunct satellites, sending an estimated 1,500 pieces of debris into orbit that NASA said endangered the crew aboard the International Space Station.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said Russia attempted to do this several times in recent years and failed, so it was predictable that they would keep trying until they scored a hit. “It’s part of a pattern,” said Cooper, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces which oversees U.S. nuclear and space programs.

The U.S. government was not blindsided when the actual test occurred Nov. 15, said Cooper. “We have very good information, thank goodness, our telemetry is very good.”

How much debris?

Satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said 239 debris objects from the ASAT test had been cataloged by U.S. Space Command’s space-track.org as of Dec. 4. “I expect many more in the weeks to come,” he wrote. 

The space tracking firm COMSPOC confirmed Dec. 2 the exact time the test occurred Nov. 15, at 2:47:31.5 UTC. Knowing the precise time is important to be able to predict the trajectory of the debris objects, COMSPOC analysts said. 

“Now that we have determined the specific impact time, COMSPOC will be able to add increased rigor to its simulations,” said the company.

Projections that the test created 1,500 of debris is still just en estimate and more analysis is needed, said COMSPOC 

“Realizing the initial orbit determinations following a breakup event can involve significant uncertainty,” the company said. 

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...