spaceconnect logo

‘Low-intensity explosion’ caused Russian satellite break-up

A “low-intensity explosion” was likely behind the Russian satellite break-up that caused astronauts on the ISS to take shelter in their docked spacecraft, LeoLabs has revealed.

The space situation awareness company added that the incident could have been triggered by an uncatalogued piece of space debris or an internal failure that led to a malfunction of its propulsion system.

NASA previously said the “precautionary” action taken by astronauts on 26 June lasted about an hour before the nine onboard were allowed to resume normal work.

LeoLabs detected the incident using its new West Australian Space Radar and previously identified the spacecraft involved as Resurs P1, a defunct Russian remote-sensing satellite.


“After several days of tracking and studying the resulting debris cloud, we estimate that the event created at least ~250 fragments and the cloud extended to at least 500 kilometres,” said LeoLabs on social media.

“This explosion could’ve been triggered by external stimuli such as an impact by a small fragment (not currently catalogued) or an internal structural failure leading to a propulsion system failure.

“We will continue to analyse the remnants from this event and update our assessment, as appropriate.

“This event demonstrates the ongoing risk of defunct spacecraft in orbit. Resurs P1 was decommissioned in 2021 and likely going to de-orbit naturally later this year due to atmospheric drag.


“There are over 2,500 long-lived intact derelict hardware (i.e., abandoned rocket bodies and non-operational payloads) that may suffer a similar fate to Resurs P1 over time.

“Based on our analysis, any spacecraft operating up to 500 kilometres in altitude may be affected by the resulting fragments from this event.”

It comes after Boeing said the emergency procedure that Starliner astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams undertook to avoid the debris worked “exceptionally well”.

“Wilmore and Williams activated their Safe Haven procedures, sheltered inside Starliner, and began preparations for a possible undocking from the station if it became necessary,” said Boeing.

“They closed the hatch before the closest debris approach, which passed without issue.

“Mission Control monitored the path of debris, and after about an hour, the crew was cleared to exit their spacecraft and resume station operations – which in this case was sleep. Starliner was out of docked quiescent mode for about three hours.

“Wilmore and Williams performed two prior Safe Haven exercises inside Starliner, as part of the CFT test objectives. However, the additional metrics gathered Wednesday evening will benefit Starliner’s certification process and sharpen the experience for future crews.”

Adam Thorn

Adam Thorn

Adam is a journalist who has worked for more than 40 prestigious media brands in the UK and Australia. Since 2005, his varied career has included stints as a reporter, copy editor, feature writer and editor for publications as diverse as Fleet Street newspaper The Sunday Times, fashion bible Jones, media and marketing website Mumbrella as well as lifestyle magazines such as GQ, Woman’s Weekly, Men’s Health and Loaded. He joined Momentum Media in early 2020 and currently writes for Australian Aviation and World of Aviation.

Receive the latest developments and updates on Australia’s space industry direct to your inbox. Subscribe today to Space Connect here.

Receive the latest developments and updates on Australia’s space industry direct to your inbox. Subscribe today to Space Connect.