What would happen if Russia detonated a nuclear bomb in space?

In February 2022, Russia launched a satellite known as Cosmos 2553, its purpose the subject of anxious speculation amid a period of intensifying global tension.

Just weeks after it settled into orbit, Russian troops invaded Ukraine — blasting Kyiv and other cities with missiles and bombs. As NATO rushed to back the overmatched Ukrainians, the world worried that the conflict could spiral into nuclear war.

In February of this year, a cryptic statement by an American congressman about a “serious national security threat” ignited a media firestorm. U.S. officials pointed to Cosmos 2553, revealing their concern that the satellite is conducting tests that could lead to a nuclear weapon orbiting in space.

To be clear, officials said no such weapon has been deployed — but it’s not science fiction anymore. And no one, besides Moscow, knows what Cosmos 2553 is up to.

So what would a nuclear explosion in space look like — and what would the effect be? To understand, we first need a clearer picture of the thousands of satellites in orbit around Earth.

The outermost satellites are in geosynchronous orbits, in sync with the Earth’s rotation roughly 22,000 miles above the planet’s surface. We rely on them for broadcast TV, radio, communications and weather forecasting.

A far more crowded realm is low Earth orbit, where thousands of satellites — from Elon Musk’s Starlink internet-beaming constellation to spy and surveillance platforms — zip around the planet over a dozen times a day. The International Space Station is in low Earth orbit, about 260 miles above the planet’s surface.

And then there’s the mysterious Cosmos 2553, which circles the Earth at an altitude a little over 1,200 miles — an orbit shared with only 10 other satellites, all of them long since dead.

White House officials have confirmed that they believe Cosmos 2553 is designed to test components of an “anti-satellite capability,” which could cripple orbital technology, potentially by a nuclear detonation in space.

We have some idea what this would look like.

Back in 1962, the United States exploded a 1.4-megaton nuclear weapon in space in a test known as Starfish Prime. The bomb blast created a powerful electromagnetic pulse and unleashed a belt of radiation that lingered for months circling the Earth.

It crippled one-third of the 24 satellites in orbit at that time, knocking out streetlights in Hawaii and damaging the electric grid. A Defense Department report noted its “intense” burst phenomena illuminated “a very large area of the Pacific.”

Today, low Earth orbit is infinitely more crowded, with thousands of communications, observation and scientific satellites that support modern life on our planet.

A nuclear explosion in space would cause indiscriminate damage, with the blast potentially knocking out many capabilities — from internet services to early-warning military systems that track missile launches — of both the United States and its adversaries.

Hundreds of satellites might lose the ability to correct their positioning, sending them careening into one another. That could create fields of debris moving at more than 10,000 miles per hour, slamming into thousands of other satellites and creating a theoretical cascade effect known as Kessler Syndrome.

Some debris would burn up in the atmosphere, but in the worst-case scenario, Earth would be shrouded in a cloud of space junk, turning the clock back decades on technology we now take for granted and rendering human spaceflight impossible.

The Starfish Prime explosion seen from the ground in Honolulu, some 800 miles away from detonation, on the night of July 9, 1962. The blast interrupted telephone service, knocked out streetlights and set off burglar alarms.

“At higher yield, and with low Earth orbit vastly more crowded than it was in the 1960s, a nuclear detonation would be totally devastating, wiping out a major component of global satellite infrastructure,” says Grant Tremblay, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and vice president of the American Astronomical Society.


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