A Russian RESURS-P1 Satellite Broke Up Into 100 Pieces: Are Astronauts Safe?

27th Jun 2024
A Russian RESURS-P1 Satellite Broke Up Into 100 Pieces: Are Astronauts Safe?

Decommissioned Russian satellite RESURS-P1 unexpectedly broke apart in orbit, creating a cloud of space debris that prompted astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to take emergency precautions. The incident occurred on 26th June 2024, at approximately 5 pm London time. 

What Happened?

The Russian Earth observation satellite had been out of service since 2022, but it suddenly began fragmenting into over 100 pieces of trackable debris within its orbital trajectory.

Leo Labs, a US-based space-tracking firm, detected RESURS-P1 releasing multiple fragments over several hours. US Space Command, utilizing its global network of space-tracking radars, confirmed the immediate creation of “over 100 pieces of trackable debris.”

U.S.Space Command statement
U.S.Space Command statement. Credit: X (former Twitter)

Launched in 2013, the RESURS-P1 satellite had surpassed its operational lifespan by 2021 when it was officially decommissioned. Originally designed for Earth observation purposes, its applications ranged from agriculture and defense to emergency monitoring.

Back in 2021, Russia drew widespread international condemnation when it deliberately targeted one of its defunct satellites in orbit using a ground-based anti-satellite missile. This action resulted in the creation of thousands of debris fragments, ostensibly as a test of a weapon system, shortly before its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

What’s With Astronauts on the International Space Station?

As a precautionary measure, the nine astronauts aboard the ISS were instructed to seek shelter in their docked spacecraft. This included the crews of the SpaceX Dragon, Russian Soyuz, and the Boeing Starliner, which is currently on an extended test mission. The astronauts remained in their respective vehicles for about an hour before receiving the all-clear to return to normal operations.

ISS statement
The most recent tweet of ISS. Credit: X (former Twitter)

Oh, And What About Boeing’s Starliner?

Originally slated for a 10-day Crew Flight Test mission, Starliner is currently more than three weeks into its journey. The spacecraft, carrying two astronauts, is authorized to depart the International Space Station (ISS) in case of emergencies.

Starliner’s scheduled departure date remains pending as NASA conducts thorough reviews and tests on its thruster systems and helium supply. Issues with these components were identified on 6th June. NASA previously indicated that Starliner’s departure would occur sometime after 2nd July, following an anticipated spacewalk on that day. The return is being postponed because the systems under question will not survive reentry and as much data as possible is being gathered.

What’s Next?

While the immediate danger has passed, NASA and other space agencies will undoubtedly be monitoring the situation closely in the coming days and weeks. The incident may also spark renewed discussions about international protocols for satellite decommissioning and debris mitigation strategies.

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