The D Brief: Space debris, above and below; Seoul-Moscow tit-for-tat; Space Force’s Vulcan concerns; New anti-extremism regs; And a bit more.

A Russian satellite broke apart in low-earth orbit Wednesday, creating a debris cloud that reportedly forced U.S. astronauts about the International Space Station to take shelter for about an hour as they orbited roughly 250 miles above the planet. The event resulted in over 100 pieces of trackable debris, U.S. officials at Space Command announced Thursday. 

It’s not clear just yet what caused the breakup of Russia’s RESURS-P1 Earth observation satellite. But “Such events can range from low-energy releases of a few pieces of debris due to insulation flaking off, to energetic events due to a small impact or the explosion of an onboard battery,” said researcher Jonathan McDowell

By the way, trackable space debris is at least 2 inches in diameter, “but even paint flecks can cause issues given the high velocities involved with objects in orbit,” reported last year. 

And that debris number could rise, because “It takes a while for all the pieces from an event to be spotted so [the roughly 100-item estimate] is very much a lower limit,” McDowell wrote on social media. 

Fortunately, ​the ISS did not have to move to avoid the debris cloud, as it has at least 32 times in its quarter-century, NASA said (PDF) back in 2022.

But a family in Naples, Florida was unable to avoid some space debris that fell to Earth and tore through the roof as well as two floors of their seaside home, allegedly landing frightfully close to a child in the home on March 8. That episode resulted “from a 2.9-ton pallet of used batteries jettisoned from the International Space Station in March of 2021,” reported Monday. The family is now seeking more than $80,000 in damages from NASA, according to the Naples Daily News

And ICYMI, Chinese space debris fell on a populated area, causing people to flee for fear of their lives, according to footage posted to social media over the weekend. Space News has a bit more about that. Our space coverage continues below the fold…

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1950, the U.S. entered the Korean War. 

Up in the air: U.S. astronauts Sunita “Suni” Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore, who arrived for a one-week mission aboard the ISS in early June, are still up there—three weeks later—while NASA and Boeing work through helium leaks and problems with the thrusters that developed on the first manned flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft.

Also: NASA has picked SpaceX to build a rocket to “deorbit” ISS after its operational life ends in 2030. “The single-award contract has a total potential value of $843 million,” NASA says.

Back on Earth, the Space Force is worried about Vulcan, the new heavy-lift rocket being built by United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that ruled the Pentagon market until SpaceX came along. In a May 10 letter, Space Force acquisition czar Frank Calvelli laid out his concerns that ULA will be unable to build its new rocket fast enough to handle the 25 national-security launches that the company has on order.

On Wednesday, ULA CEO Tory Bruno described the companies’ response. The co-owners have created an “independent review team” to offer suggestions to ULA. Bruno also said that he made a “personal commitment” to fly the Space Force’s missions as scheduled, and that he would be standing up his own team after the current one does its work. D1’S Audrey Decker reports, here.

New: North Korea claims to have successfully tested a new missile with multiple warheads in a test launch Wednesday. “The test was carried out by using the first-stage engine of an intermediate-range solid-fueled ballistic missile within a 170 to 200 km radius, which is favourable for ensuring maximum safety and measuring the flight characteristics of individual mobile warheads,” state-run KCNA news reported Thursday, adding, “The separated mobile warheads were guided correctly to the three coordinate targets.” 

However, South Korea’s military says the test was a failure as the missile exploded in the air, according to Seoul’s Yonhap news agency. The missile “exploded in an early stage of the flight,” yet “North Korea made a different announcement this morning, but [we] believe that this is merely a method of deception and exaggeration,” said military spokesman Col. Lee Sung-jun.

One last thing about space: “Pooping on the Moon Is a Messy Business,” WIRED reported Tuesday from the Moon colonization beat. The gist: “If humans are to return to the moon, space agencies and governments need to figure out the legal, ethical, and practical dimensions of extraterrestrial waste management.” Story, here.

South Korea warns Russia not to “make a mistake” as tit-for-tat rolls on. After Moscow and Pyongyang concluded a security agreement earlier this month, Seoul said it would consider sending arms to Ukraine, which on Tuesday drew a warning from Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova “not to take rash steps that could bring about an irreversible outcome for the bilateral relations,” Yonhap reports. On Wednesday, Seoul spokesperson Lim Soo-suk responded to the response: "We warn that Russia should not make a mistake that could lead to irreversible consequences in South Korea-Russia relations.”

Added Lim: “We hope that the Russian side will move away from relying on North Korea and act appropriately as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council." The rogue dictatorship is under at least nine United Nations sanctions for its nuclear and missile activities since 2006, and is annually condemned by the UN’s human rights body.

Instead, Russia—once a “reluctant enforcer” of UN sanctions—has become an “outright saboteur,” 38North’s Samuel Ramani wrote on Monday.

China is seeking ways to disrupt daily American life in a conflict, Pentagon’s IT leader says. “That is a key objective for the PRC,” Lt. Gen. Robert Skinner, who leads the Defense Information Systems Agency, said Wednesday at TechNet in Baltimore. “They will want to look at: ‘How can we disrupt, not just militarily, but from an information standpoint, and from our day-to-day lives?’ To see: ‘Is the will there, as a nation, to continue on with whatever kind of conflict is going?’”

Skinner also echoed other government leaders and China experts in saying that China’s “risk tolerance continues to change”—meaning that Beijing is willing to go further in its offensive cyber and space operations. Two new reports buttress this claim: one from cybersecurity group Recorded Future and Sentinel Labs notes that Chinese hackers, once content to steal secrets and data, are launching more ransomware attacks at infrastructure and civilian entities. 

RAND, meanwhile, says China is likely to launch riskier attacks on space communications and other areas as well. One reason Chinese leaders are willing to take more risks is that their space-sensing capabilities are growing, enabling them to keep a closer eye on U.S. military and other forces, the RAND report said. Defense One’s Patrick Tucker has more, here.

SecDef Austin called his Philippine counterpart on Wednesday. According to the DOD readout, “Secretary Austin reaffirmed the ironclad U.S. commitment to the Philippines following dangerous actions on June 17 by the People's Republic of China (PRC) against lawful operations by the Philippines to deliver humanitarian supplies to service members stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre.” Austin and Philippine Secretary of National Defense Gilberto Teodoro Jr. also “reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening the U.S.-Philippine alliance in support of their shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, including through cooperation with like-minded partners and bilateral initiatives...”

And lastly: U.S. soldiers can now be punished under a new policy restricting extremist-related activity, including flying flags, posting posters, and social-media activity, reported Wednesday. 

The new policy leaves the decision to act up to commanders. But the activities that the new policy says can “adversely affect readiness, good order and discipline, or morale within the command” involve “posting, liking, sharing, re-tweeting, or otherwise distributing content” online, but only “when such action is taken with the intent to promote or otherwise endorse extremist activities,” according to the text of Army Directive 2024-07, which was issued on June 14. 

The restrictions also cover “clothing, tattoos, and bumper stickers,” and the soldiers are subject to these guidelines “whether on or off a military installation,” according to the directive. 

Consequences can include getting kicked out, being reassigned, losing your security clearance, or whatever else the commander decides. Read more in the relevant documents here and here