Russia seeks to reassure ISS astronauts after missile claims

·3-min read
The US and Russia have maintained strong space ties since the end of the Cold War, cooperating closely on the ISS, which they built together (AFP/-)

Russia's space agency said on Tuesday its "main priority" was the safety of the International Space Station's crew, after the US accused Moscow of putting the astronauts under threat with a missile strike.

US officials on Monday denounced Russia for conducting a "dangerous and irresponsible" missile test that blew up one of its own satellites, creating a debris cloud that forced the ISS crew to take evasive action.

The move reignited concerns about a growing arms race in space, encompassing everything from laser weapons to satellites capable of shunting others out of orbit.

In its first comments following the US accusations, Russia's Roscosmos space agency did not deny there had been a missile strike.

It said its "automated warning system for dangerous situations" was continuing "to monitor the situation in order to prevent and counter all possible threats to the safety of the International Space Station and its crew".

"For us, the main priority has been and remains to ensure the unconditional safety of the crew," Roscosmos said in a statement.

US officials said they were not informed in advance of the anti-satellite missile test -- only the fourth ever to hit a spacecraft from the ground -- which generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement that the danger was far from over and the debris would continue to threaten satellites and activities on the ISS.

NASA said the crew aboard the orbital outpost -- currently four Americans, a German and two Russians -- were woken up and forced to take shelter in their return ships.

According to space industry analysis company Seradata, the target of the missile was Cosmos 1408, a 1982 Soviet signals intelligence satellite that has been defunct for several decades.

- 'Destabilising' -

Russian state news agencies reported that Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin was expected to meet NASA officials on Tuesday.

NASA chief Bill Nelson said on Monday he was "outraged" by the "irresponsible and destabilising action".

Yury Shvytkin, deputy chairman of the Russian lower house of parliament's defence committee, said Washington's accusations did not "correspond to reality".

"Russia is not engaged in the militarisation of space," he was cited by the Interfax news agency as saying.

"We have been and are against the militarisation of space."

But Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told AFP it had "long been known that we have anti-missile and anti-space weapons and that we are deploying them".

Anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) are high-tech missiles possessed by only a handful of nations.

India was the last to carry out a test on a target in 2019, an incident criticised by the US and others after hundreds of pieces of "space junk" were created.

The US shot down a satellite in 2008 in response to China demonstrating a similar knockout in 2007.

Last year, Britain and the US accused Russia of testing a "nesting doll" satellite that opened up and released a smaller craft to stalk an American satellite.

Despite the tension, the US and Russia have maintained strong space ties since the end of the Cold War, cooperating closely on the ISS, which they built together.

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