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It’s Time for a Global Ban on Destructive Antisatellite Testing

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…

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. This debris could pose a threat to the thousands of satellites that are planned to be launched in the next years. They are intended for providing global broadband access and other activities in space as part of the growing space economy. Some of the orbital debris can be long-lasting, so it could pose a risk to any future launches at the same altitude.

It is time that the international community stop antisatellite testing. But it will be difficult.

Antisatellite weaponry has been part of the superpower rivalry since the dawn of the space age. To be fair, Russia isn’t the only country that has conducted a test that produced significant amounts 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 so many potential disasters, it is disappointing that policy makers have not been able to stop such tests or address the larger 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 Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is the other multilateral body that might host negotiations on space arms control. However, there has been much disagreement about what the true threat to space. Russia, China, and their allies believe that space-to-Earth weapon placements in orbit should be prohibited. Instead, the United States and its allies argue that space-to-Earth weapons placement in orbit is destabilizing. This includes uncoordinated close approach to satellites of other countries or deliberate creation of large quantities of debris. The two sides disagree on whether to make the steps legally binding or voluntary guidelines and establish political norms of conduct.

Despite all the difficulties that have prevented an ASAT ban, there may be a glimmer or 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

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