The CNES Space Surveillance Service in Toulouse is responsible for overseeing the security of 240 satellites. Since the Russian missile fire, it lists the debris caused in an attempt to minimize the risk of collision.
Russia is at the origin of an anti-satellite missile launch on Monday, November 15, which generated “more than 1,500 traceable orbital debris “ according to the Americans. The incident is so serious that the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) had to prepare for an emergency evacuation.
At CNES in Toulouse, the Space Surveillance Service watches over the security of 240 satellites that this Russian missile firing greatly contributes to weakening. Explanations with its director Juan-Carlos Dolado, who agreed to answer our questions.
What is your part ?
As a French organization, our mission is to characterize what happened and the consequences. Our objective is to have an autonomous assessment in cooperation with the Ministry of the Armed Forces, to find out what this voluntary fragmentation induces.
We use data that comes from army radars and our simulators to study the fragments, the altitude regimes. Our role is to protect 240 satellites, to be able to take this new debris into account and to prevent possible collisions by defining other trajectories to limit the risk for each of the satellites. On the other hand, we do not have this role for the ISS which is considered by the Americans and the Russians.
Are you currently in a crisis?
Yes. We are in full work to observe this debris, catalogers and tracers of the orbits received. Today, it is expected that there will be collisions because this cloud of debris, even if it is around 400 km, will rise to more than 2,000 km. Clearly, these are fragments that will “wander” between 400 and 2,000 km.
The risks are high: a satellite at an orbital speed of 7 km / second. In the event of a collision with an object, the relative speed may be 10 km / second. Even a tiny object of a few millimeters can destroy a satellite.
Unfortunately, we are at the limit of our means of surveillance because we are unable to observe objects from a few centimeters. We can only detect those that are larger than 10 centimeters.
100% of these objects are detected and, with the help of our American and European colleagues, on the possibility of successfully avoiding the risks. Objects greater than this size which were obtained from Russian firing were deposited at 1,500. We will catalog them in the days and weeks to come.
As a professional, beyond any political question, what do you think of this initiative by the Russians?
It’s dramatic. For the record, the Chinese made the same choice in 2007, indicating an explosion at 800 km. Today, 13 to 14 years later, we still continue to have consequences of this shooting on the safety of the satellites. It is even the biggest part of the risks that we have to manage.
The objects this time again are mounted very far, they will stay in orbit for a long time and will generate collisions. This act is irresponsible. It considerably increases the risk of destruction. Considering the colossal energy that is involved, even a small mass can cause an explosion.
I do not understand the decision of the Russians because this shot harms everyone, including them. To give a rather striking example, the ISS is experiencing a crisis situation, the astronauts had to take refuge in their vessels, ready to return to Earth. They thus send their own compatriots in danger.
They have just made a show of force capable of destroying a satellite with a missile. But at almost 500 km, they will prevent them from being able to ignore significant risks of collision.
How do you organize yourself?
We are organized into teams 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In addition to our other missions, we collect a million measurements every day that we process to prevent risks.
We are also working in parallel on new surveillance which will allow us to detect smaller and smaller objects. The objective: to be better able to protect oneself in the future. This does not only concern France, but it is true that for the moment we are powerless in the face of the risks posed by objects of less than 10 centimeters.
There is this technological issue but also the question of sustainability … Faced with the proliferation of objects in orbit, space is less and less sustainable. Space operations are subject to increasing risks. This shot adds more and compromises the space odyssey. However, these missions and aerospace exploration provide services in relation to meteorology, the environment, communications and navigation. It is a common good which is today endangered.