A recent Russian anti-satellite test that sent thousands of pieces of debris into orbit and put astronauts in the International Space Station in potential peril underscores the need for new policies and will likely provoke other countries to ratchet up military capabilities in space, according to observers.
How This Started
On November 15, Russia destroyed its own satellite, Cosmos 1408, a non-operational Soviet Electronic and Signals Intelligence Tselina-D satellite designed to determine precise location and activity of radio emitters, according to NASA.
“The U.S. knows for certain that the resulting fragments, in terms of test time and orbital parameters, did not and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities,” Russia’s defense ministry said following the incident, according to The Associated Press.
The kinetic anti-satellite test created a cloud of debris with at least 1,500 trackable pieces, and stoked swift condemnation by U.S. officials.
“We are concerned about the … weaponization of space and we would certainly call upon Russia and all countries to act in a responsible manner in this regard,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters in a briefing following the incident.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would work with allies as it sought to respond, and called on other spacefaring nations to join the U.S. in developing norms of responsible behavior.
Blinken did not, however, specify what response would be taken.
“The events of November 15, 2021, clearly demonstrate that Russia, despite its claims of opposing the weaponization of outer space, is willing to jeopardize the long-term sustainability of outer space and imperil the exploration and use of outer space by all nations through its reckless and irresponsible behavior,” Blinken said.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he was outraged by the “destabilizing” act.
“With its long and storied history in human spaceflight, it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts,” Nelson said. “Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board.
“All nations have a responsibility to prevent the purposeful creation of space debris from ASATs and to foster a safe, sustainable space environment,” Nelson said.
Potential dangers posed by debris prompted swift action. The crew of the International Space Station was awakened, and instructed to shelter by closing the hatches to radial modules on the station, according to NASA. The hatches between the U.S. and Russian areas stayed open.
The precautions continued for two passes through or near the debris field, NASA said.
“The crew members made their way into their spacecraft shortly before 2 a.m. EST and remained there until about 4 a.m.,” NASA said.
The debris field consisting of more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris will likely lead to hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces of orbital debris, U.S. Space Command said.
“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations,” U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, U.S. Space Command commander, said in a statement following the test. “The debris created by Russia’s DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers.
“Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible,” Dickinson said.
The space junk will likely remain in orbit for years, perhaps even decades, “posing a significant risk to the crew on the International Space Station and other human spaceflight activities,” according to a U.S. Space Command assessment.
What is Russia trying to communicate?
The tremendous amount of orbital debris in low Earth orbit also endangers the operation of other satellites at similar orbits in space, said Todd Harrison, who is the director of the Aerospace Security Project as well as Defense Budget Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
“It was a very big deal,” Harrison said. “It poses an indiscriminate risk on others’ ability to use space.”
Four countries—the U.S., Russia, China, and India—have conducted ASAT in the past. In recent years, however, India and the U.S. shot down their satellites while they were at a very low altitude, so the debris produced reentered the atmosphere and burned up within days and weeks.
“It is ridiculous that they conducted a test like this at an orbit that is so similar in altitude to the space station they helped build,” Harrison said.
The bigger issue emerging from the test is how to interpret it, he said.
“What is Russia trying to communicate to us?” Harrison said. “We already knew they had this capability. They could not only shoot down their own satellites, they could use this against our satellites, right? We already knew that. And they’ve had that capability for decades. The question is, why did they choose to conduct this test, in the way that they did it, knowing that it would produce all of this dangerous debris?”
Now, the question becomes, what comes next, Harrison said.
“What are we going to do with our allies and partners, and other like-minded nations to stop this kind of reckless behavior from happening again?”
In 1967, the United Nations passed the Outer Space Treaty, an agreement that put in place a set of governing principles for state activities in the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies. The agreement, which Russia signed, remains in effect.
But, explains Harrison, nothing in the treaty would prevent an action like the ASAT. Going forward, diplomatic efforts could possibly be levied to rally support for passing additional measures through the UN, he said.
Negotiations have been ongoing for years.
“I would say that it likely would take several years to get some sort of a new agreement negotiated,” Harrison said. “It’s not likely that Russia or China would agree to any kind of limitations on their anti-satellite weapons.”
For one, he said, anti-satellite weapons are tied to the strength of their nuclear deterrent forces, as well as their perceptions of U.S. missile defense systems.
“For them, they view using anti-satellite weapons like this as a way to make their missiles and their nuclear forces more effective,” Harrison said. “So if they can destroy some of our satellites, especially our missile warning satellites, that makes it more likely their missiles will get through.”
The ASAT was a realization of fears, according to a space policy expert. “I was both surprised and not surprised,” said Brian Weeden, a space security expert for the Secure World Foundation.
One thing that may be worth keeping in mind – while the politics of Russia’s ASAT program is complicated, its primary purpose is not to destroy US military support satellites. It gets support mostly from concerns about US “strike weapons” 1/— Pavel Podvig (@russianforces) November 16, 2021
“We knew Russia had been developing the Nudol for nearly a decade and had conducted several prior tests, but never done an intercept. We were concerned that they might decide to do an intercept in the near future to make a political point, but had hoped they would not,” Weeden said. “Unfortunately, those hopes were wrong.”
Following the test, the extent of the threat to the ISS was uncertain, but NASA took no chances by advising the crew to take shelter in their capsules.
“Shortly after the test was the most dangerous period for the astronauts and the ISS because we didn’t have much data about where the orbital debris was,” Weeden said. “All we knew was that there was a breakup relatively close to the orbit of the ISS and they would be passing through it every 90 minutes or so.”
According to Weeden, the 1,500 pieces of debris have spread out in a line throughout the satellite’s original orbit, and in the coming months, will spread out around the Earth. While that makes for a less concentrated threat for the ISS, it will continue to become a long-term threat to everything else in low-Earth orbit.
When it comes to the threat of armed conflict, Weeden thinks Russia’s ASAT test could be considered a militarization of Earth’s orbit.
“They are absolutely a response to the increased use of space capabilities and satellites to support military activities on Earth and also may prompt other countries to develop additional ASAT or military capabilities to try and defeat or defend against them,” he said.
And just like when other countries conducted ASAT tests in the past, the action can raise tensions between nations, Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) told FLYING.
“Basically, that kind of puts everybody on edge in the sense that people can really start thinking about the security and safety of their assets,” Podvig said. “So, the concern is about the actual tests and the debris that are created, and especially after the Chinese test, which created their big cloud of debris. People thought it looks like there was a consensus in a way that, well, we should really not do debris-creating anti-satellite tests and I had a strong impression that this is a very liked consensus.”
According to Podvig, ASAT missile tests are not prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty, stating that it currently applies to weapons of mass destruction being held in space.
“Russia and China have introduced the draft treaty on prevention of placing weapons in space,” he said. “And that may or may not prohibit these kinds of threats to space objects, but that offer was not picked up by the United States and their allies.”
“I think it’s very regrettable that they kind of went ahead and actually did the actual intercept,” Podvig said. “Because I don’t think that was really necessary, and from whatever Russia’s policies regarding space and dealing with the weaponization of space, militarization of space, that certainly will not help Russia strengthen its position.”