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Debris from Russia's antisatellite weapons test is a hazard for ISS astronauts

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The U.S. government announced today that Russia has tested an anti-satellite missile. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports that the test created a large debris field and a hazard for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The test took place early this morning, according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

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NED PRICE: The Russian Federation recklessly conducted a destructive satellite test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites.

BRUMFIEL: The satellite was known as Kosmos-1408. It was an old Soviet intelligence satellite launched in the 1980s. It hadn't been working for years, but striking it with a missile created a cloud of debris.

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PRICE: The test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations.

BRUMFIEL: This test is just the latest in a series that has taken place in recent years. China, India and the United States have all blown up their own defunct satellites. Brian Weeden is with the Secure World Foundation. He says they're doing it just to prove that they can.

BRIAN WEEDEN: Politicians seem to think this is useful for showing off their power.

BRUMFIEL: But he says these tests create huge problems. A 2007 Chinese test splattered thousands of pieces of debris across space. Much of it is still up there.

WEEDEN: The risk is exactly this - that you generate a whole bunch of debris that then poses a collision risk to everyone else's stuff in space, including your own.

BRUMFIEL: That point became crystal-clear aboard the International Space Station today, where the crew, including two Russian cosmonauts, had to duck in and out of compartments, sealing hatches, each time the debris field flew past. European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer was briefly cut off from his personal items. Talking to the ground, he asked if he could grab a few things before the debris came back around.

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MATTHIAS MAURER: I would also like to access my sleeping quarters and to take out maybe the sleeping bag if we need to camp out.

BRUMFIEL: After due consultation, he was given a roughly 40-minute window by mission control.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Go ahead and grab whatever you need for the evening, assuming that we're going to close that back up, and you're going to be sleeping elsewhere tonight.

BRUMFIEL: It was a tough start for Maurer and his colleagues, who had just arrived to the station days earlier, although veteran NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who was already aboard, said the whole thing did provide a kind of improvised icebreaker.

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MARK VANDE HEI: It was certainly a great way to bond as a crew, starting off their very first work day in space.

BRUMFIEL: But he's hoping things will get back to normal soon.

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VANDE HEI: We're looking forward to a calmer day tomorrow.

BRUMFIEL: It should be easier to predict the risk posed by the debris cloud as radars here on Earth start tracking the different pieces, but it won't go away completely. This weapons test will likely continue to affect peaceful work in space for many years to come.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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