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'Space Vandals': Russian Missile Test Draws Western Outrage; Moscow Denies Threat

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The International Space Station (file photo)

France and NATO have joined the United States in condemning Russia for conducting a missile test that blew up a defunct Russian satellite, creating a debris cloud that endangered the International Space Station (ISS) -- an accusation dismissed by the Kremlin.

The anti-satellite missile test blew up a defunct Russian satellite on November 15, and generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces, U.S. officials said.

According to NASA, the debris forced the crew aboard the space station -- four Americans, a German, and two Russians -- to shelter into their docked spaceship capsules for two hours as a precaution to allow for a quick evacuation had it been necessary.

Without naming Russia, French Defense Minister Florence Parly on November 16 lashed out at "space vandals" who were producing dangerous amounts of debris, after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Moscow for its "dangerous and irresponsible" anti-satellite missile test. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson denounced Russia's "reckless" action.

The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed it had conducted a weapons test targeting an unused Russian satellite that had been in orbit since 1982, insisting that the debris it generated “did not and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called accusations against Russia baseless, while a vague statement issued by Russian space agency Roskosmos said that it was monitoring the situation to "prevent and counter all possible threats to the safety" of the space laboratory orbiting at an altitude of about 420 kilometers.

The test highlights a growing space arms race among global powers, encompassing everything from systems to counter missile defense systems to anti-satellite operations.

Parly wrote on Twitter that "space is a common good belonging to the 7.7 billion inhabitants of our planet."

"The space vandals have an overwhelming responsibility for generating debris that pollutes and puts our astronauts and satellites in danger," she wrote, after announcing in a separate tweet the launch of three French military satellites.

Blinken warned the debris created by "this dangerous and irresponsible test" will now threaten satellites and other space objects "that are vital to all nations' security, economic, and scientific interests for decades to come.

"In addition, it will significantly increase the risk to astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station and other human spaceflight activities," he added.

Stoltenberg told journalists that the missile test "created a lot of debris, which is now a risk to the International Space Station and also to the Chinese space station -- so this was a reckless act by Russia."

NASA's Nelson said he was "outraged" at the Russian test.

"With its long and storied history in human spaceflight, it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts," Nelson said in a statement.

"Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board," he added.

U.S. Space Command said its initial assessment was that the debris will remain in orbit for years and potentially for decades, posing a long-term threat to the ISS and more than 3,000 active satellites from multiple countries.

In a sign of the strategic nature of the test, Space Command said Russia was developing and deploying capabilities to deny access to and use of space by the United States and its allies.

"Russia's tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons clearly demonstrate that Russia continues to pursue counterspace weapon systems that undermine strategic stability and pose a threat to all nations," Space Command commander James Dickinson said.

"Russia, despite its claims of opposing the weaponization of outer space, is willing to jeopardize the long-term sustainability of outer space," Blinken said, adding that the United States was discussing its response with partners.

At the UN General Assembly in September last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested an agreement among space powers to prohibit the placement of weapons in space, as well as the threat or use of force against outer space objects.

Anti-satellite weapons are high-tech missiles possessed by few countries.

India was the last to carry out a test on a target in 2019, in a move strongly criticized by other powers, including the United States.

The United States shot down a satellite in 2008 in response to China demonstrating a similar capability in 2007.

The U.S. and India tests were carried at much lower altitudes -- well below the International Space Station -- than the one conducted by Russia.

With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and TASS
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