The United States Government has stated that it does not run longer tests of anti-satellite (AST) weapons. In a public statement during a visit to Vandenberg Space Force Base, Vice President Kamala Harris confirmed that the primary purpose of this policy is to set an example for other countries. It is an important step towards establishing “space standards” that all countries must follow.
ASAT weapons go as far back as the early years of the Cold War. According to the Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems, ASAT weapons were designed for strategic and tactical military purposes. Satellites have long been used by the military for navigation, communication and gathering information about enemy movements and activities through advanced satellite imagery: spy satellites.
While ASAT weapons have never been used in actual warfare, China, India, Russia and the US have all proven their capabilities. These weapons have so far only been used by these countries in tests against their own targets, such as decommissioned satellites.
If you’re wondering why it would even be necessary to shoot your own satellites out of the sky, it might help to remember that this reminds everyone that they can destroy a satellite at will. It’s a threat: “If you threaten our infrastructure, we can retaliate.” But each successful test throws thousands of new pieces of debris into orbit.
The risks of space debris may not seem so obvious at first. After all, the space is huge, and you might not think it’s very likely that a few bits and pieces can hit something important† But it’s worth remembering that every single object in space, from the International Space Station (ISS) to the tiniest speck of paint, is whizzing around Earth at tremendous speed, and we keep putting more and more stuff there.
The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) maintains an index of objects launched into space. At the end of January 2022, this list contained 8,261 individual satellites, an increase of almost 12% over the previous 10 months. And as Starlink and its rivals settle to building their mega-constellations of communications satellites, this growth will only accelerate. In fact, satellite collisions have already occurred and it is no longer uncommon for satellite owners to dodge each other’s satellites.
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So as harmless as it may seem to detonate your own gear in space, there is a very real threat looming. Every time a satellite is destroyed, whether it’s attacked by ASAT weapons or just crashed into something, it results in thousands of tiny pieces of debris scattered across the orbit of the original satellite. On Earth, this would simply mean a lot of litter to clean up, but in space and orbit, it means thousands of shards of metal, plastic and ceramics orbit the planet many times faster than a rifle bullet.
A prime example of this was when Russia conducted its most recent ASAT test in November 2021. Debris from the destroyed satellite came dangerously close to the International Space Station, and emergency measures were needed to keep it out of danger. This is the crux of the problem. Most of the larger debris from such tests can be tracked with ground-based radar, which can give satellite operators advance warning, but the smaller stuff is basically invisible. Depending on how high it is, it can stay in orbit for a very long time.
Addressing this issue was the main goal of VP Harris’s announcement. By setting such standards, it is hoped that other countries will follow suit. According to Robin Dicky, principal analyst at the Aerospace Center for Space Policy and Strategy, “There are countless conversations about different standards going on – there is no one-size-fits-all solution for developing them. The approach you choose will likely be very different depending on the content and context.”
The global astronomy community and scientists around the world fully support the idea of: eliminate space junk, including the use of anti-satellite testing, but it could be some time before this becomes a reality. Russia and China have disengaged from the European and US space programs, making the prospect of a “universal protocol” difficult at this stage.
It may take longer than we hope, but the circumstances are not as bleak as they seem. Projects such as ClearSpace1 are underway to manage “space debris” by collecting it and performing controlled atmospheric burns. And if we can reach a global agreement to end ASAT, it will lay the foundation for long-term sustainable management. This landmark announcement by VP Harris is an important step in the right direction.
With the pace at which we get things into orbit, it will become critical to reach consensus among all private companies and space agencies. According to the MIT Technology Review, by 2025 there could be as many as 1,100 satellites launched every year† As Dicky puts it, “Setting these common expectations of what is and isn’t acceptable in space is a critical step to ensure space is safe and usable for everyone in decades to come.”
More information: Carnegie Institution
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