Tonight Vice President Kamala Harris announces that the United States will no longer conduct anti-satellite or ASAT missile tests — the practice of using ground missiles to destroy satellites in orbit. Harris is challenging other countries to make the same commitment, establishing this policy as a new “standard for responsible behavior in space.”
Harris will speak in more detail about the new alliance this evening during a speech at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Harris is currently the chairman of the White House National Space Council, an executive advisory group that helps set the country’s space agenda.
This statement comes five months after Russia conducted an ASAT test in November. The country launched one of its Nudol rockets from Earth, which destroyed Russia’s Cosmos-1408 satellite, a Soviet-era spacecraft that has been in orbit since the 1980s. The event created a huge cloud of more than 1,500 pieces of traceable debris and thousands of smaller pieces that could not be detected. The satellite’s destruction occurred in orbit quite close to that of the International Space Station, forcing the astronauts on board to temporarily shelter in their spacecraft in case the debris damaged the facility.
The United States was quick to condemn the test, as did NATO and the European Union. Tests like these — known as direct-ascent ASAT tests — are widely reviled for their tendency to create dangerous debris. The leftover pieces of ASAT testing can spread for miles and often remain in orbit for months and even years, threatening the space environment. ASAT debris cannot be controlled and moves at many thousands of miles per hour, so even a small fragment can damage or disable a functioning satellite during a collision.
While the space community generally despises ASAT testing, no country in the more than 60 years that countries have tested the technology has called for a moratorium on the practice. Now the United States is taking that step in light of Russia’s actions. “I think it’s a really powerful move,” said Victoria Samson, a military space expert at the Secure World Foundation think tank. The edge† “The US is the first country to make these kinds of statements, and I very much hope that other countries will follow suit — especially those that have also tested anti-satellite weapons in space, but even those that haven’t.”
Since the same missile technology used to destroy a fast-moving satellite can also be used to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles, ASAT tests can act as technology demonstrations. But these tests are mainly very loud display of force. When a country demonstrates that it can destroy one of its own satellites, it broadcasts to the world that it has the ability to destroy an opponent’s satellites as well.
So far, no country has used ASAT technology to take out another country’s spacecraft. Instead, only four countries have demonstrated this technology on their own satellites. Russia has been testing its Nudol technology for years, but only successfully destroyed a satellite from the ground in November. In 2019, India destroyed one of its own satellites, creating several hundred pieces of debris — half of which have already burned up in our planet’s atmosphere. And in 2007, China destroyed its defunct Fengyun-1C weather satellite, creating thousands of fragments. Some of that debris is still in orbit, causing trouble; in November, just before Russia conducted its ASAT test, the International Space Station had to step up his job to get out of the way from one of the surviving pieces of China’s ASAT test.
The US has perhaps been testing ASAT technology the longest, conducting its last test to produce debris in 2008. As part of a mission called “Burnt Frost”‘, the US Strategic Command launched a missile at a decaying National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite. The US argued that the satellite contained nearly 1,000 pounds of a poisonous propellant called hydrazine, and shooting the satellite down was simply a safety measure to prevent the propellant from escaping. damage if the satellite survived the dive through Earth’s atmosphere.
Although it has been more than a decade since the US conducted an ASAT test, the US has been hesitant to end the practice. “Until a few years ago, that wasn’t the American position,” says Samson. “The US wanted complete freedom of action in space anyway.”
However, Earth’s orbit has become increasingly crowded in recent years. It has become easier and cheaper for companies to launch privately built satellites into space. Meanwhile, companies like SpaceX and OneWeb have started building mega-constellations of satellites in orbit, consisting of hundreds and even thousands of satellites. Earth’s orbit will only become more congested as other companies and countries consider launching similar mega-constellations to stay competitive.
Just add Lake debris to this area will only increase the risk of collisions. Russia’s ASAT test in November showed just how threatening that debris cloud can be when it endangers the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. In December, Kathleen Hicks, the deputy secretary of the United States Department of Defense, said, expressed the wish that the international community cease ASAT testing at a meeting of the National Space Council. “We would like all countries to agree to forgo testing anti-satellite weapons that create debris,” she said.
Now the Biden administration is making that wish official, with the US leading the effort and calling on other countries to do the same. However, it is unclear which countries will actually follow suit, and there is currently no way to hold countries accountable for their commitments.
However, the international community seems ready to take a stance on ASAT testing in a sense. In May, the United Nations will convene an open working group charged with establishing “standards, rules and principles for responsible behavior” in space. One of the topics the group deals with are debris-generating events caused by the deliberate destruction of spacecraft in orbit. “From what we’ve heard, a lot of countries are interested in something like an ASAT testing moratorium,” Samson says. “So I actually think this has the potential to get a tidal wave to international support.”
Of course, there is a lengthy process between today’s announcement and some sort of declaration of international law. “This is definitely a first step,” says Samson. “We hope many more will follow.”
SOURCE – www.theverge.com