In November, Russia ignited an international uproar with a weapon test that launched an interceptor against a defunct military satellite. When it hit, that deliberate collision shattered the satellite into more than 1,500 trackable pieces of debris.
This space debris is dangerous; it could hit and severely damage an orbiting space station, akin to the opening scenes of the movie Gravity. The debris from this test could knock out any of dozens of satellites working to monitor climate and weather, not to mention those that provide critical national security information and perform other vital services for us on Earth. The debris could threaten the tens of thousands of new satellites planned for launch in the coming years and intended to provide global broadband access and other in-space activities as part of a growing space economy. And some of this orbital debris is long-lived, meaning that it could pose a future risk to anything that might launch into the same altitude for years to come.
It is past time for the global community to put an end to such antisatellite testing—but doing so will not be easy.
Antisatellite weapons have been part of the superpower rivalry from the beginning of the space age. And, to be fair, Russia is not the only country to carry out a test that created significant amounts of orbital debris.
Between 1959 and 1995, the United States and Soviet Union conducted more than 50 antisatellite (ASAT) tests in space, in which a dozen weapons hit satellites, creating more than 1,200 pieces of trackable orbital debris. Although decades have passed, nearly 400 trackable pieces of that debris are still on orbit, not to mention many more still-dangerous pieces too small to be tracked with current systems. Since 2005, the United States, Russia, China, and India have conducted another 26 ASAT tests in space, five of which have destroyed satellites and created more than 5,300 pieces of trackable orbital debris that will remain in orbit for decades to come.
The latest Russian venture is the first time in seven years of testing that the nation has attempted to use this weapon—a ground-based interceptor called Nudol or A-235—against an actual satellite as a target. And it happened at an altitude of approximately 480 kilometers; both the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong space station orbit at an altitude of around 400 kilometers.
With this much possibility of calamity, it is unfortunate that policy makers have had such little success in trying to prevent such tests, let alone in addressing the broader issue of space weapons. The international community has been trying for decades to limit the development or use of space weapons, such as ASATs, through discussions of what has been called the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). PAROS has been an annual agenda item there since the 1980s; however, this item has become a pro forma vote with little actual resulting action.
The other main multilateral body where one might expect to see negotiations on space arms control, the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, has been bogged down in disagreement over what the real threat to space is. Russia, China and their allies argue that the focus should be on banning the placement of space-to-Earth weapons in orbit. The United States and its allies instead argue that threatening behavior in space—such as uncoordinated close approaches to another country’s satellite, or the deliberate creation of large amounts of debris—is what is destabilizing. Furthermore, the two sides are split over whether the steps taken should be a legally binding treaty or voluntary guidelines and political norms of behavior.
Despite the disagreements that have prevented a ban on ASAT testing to date, there is perhaps a glimmer of hope. In December 2020, the UNGA passed Resolution 75/36, calling on countries to submit reports on what they saw as the most pressing threats to space security and recommend steps on how to move forward. More than 30 countries replied, with many supporting the idea of limiting specific technologies in space rather than enacting any bans, and working towards identifying and promoting responsible behavior in space. In October 2021, the U.N. First Committee voted to hold a new Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on space threats (and formalized it in the UNGA with a vote in December 2021). The OEWG would be open to all countries and would meet in 2022 and 2023 to develop concrete proposals for addressing space threats.
Although the prospects of a new multilateral treaty banning the existence of space weapons are dim, there are other things that can be done to minimize the dangerous consequences of these weapons. First and foremost, the countries that are developing and testing such weapons—China, India, Russia, and the United States—can unilaterally declare a moratorium on further testing that creates orbital debris. Doing so would send a strong signal to the international community that they are committed to the long-term sustainability of space and for delegitimizing the testing of these weapons against satellites.
Second, all countries should participate in and contribute to the OEWG on space threats to discuss how to move towards a global ban on destructive ASAT testing. Countries should come to the table with ideas for addressing other pressing threats to space security. This includes nonconsensual close encounters with another country’s satellites and attempts to disrupt satellite operations by targeting them with ground-based lasers. Although less obviously threatening than kinetic attacks where a satellite is physically destroyed, such acts are increasing in frequency and could inflame tensions, potentially leading to misperceptions or mistakes that then spark actual armed, hostile conflict in space.
That would be devastating to the entire planet.
There is much work that still needs to be done to establish the foundations for any new space arms control agreement. One unresolved issue is that there is no agreed-upon space arms control lexicon; one is needed to overcome the existing cultural, language, and geopolitical differences amongst the major space powers. Another is a better understanding of what incentives are driving the testing of ASAT weapons and how those can be shifted. Finally, a verification regime needs to be developed that will enable all countries to monitor whether or not the conditions of any agreement are being followed. Improving space situational awareness data collection and sharing will be a key part of this monitoring.
Russia’s most recent ASAT test, like earlier tests conducted by it and the United States, China and India, has made operating in low Earth orbit more dangerous for years to come. All satellite operators and crewed vehicles will need to spend time, effort and fuel on avoiding collisions as the debris from these tests gradually reenters the Earth’s atmosphere. But if the international community can leverage this test as the wake-up call to enact an ASAT test moratorium and enter into space arms control discussions in good faith, some good may still be salvaged. By establishing agreed-upon norms of behavior in space and generating binding restrictions on ASAT testing, the international community can ensure that space is stable, secure and accessible to all for generations to come.