The United States Government has declared that it will no longer be performing tests of Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapons. In a public statement during a visit to the Vandenberg Space Force Base, Vice President Kamala Harris confirmed that this policy has the primary purpose of setting an example to other countries. It represents an important step in the direction of establishing “space norms” for all countries to 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 intel on enemy movements and activities through sophisticated satellite imaging: Spy satellites.
Although ASAT weapons have never been used in actual warfare, China, India, Russia, and the USA have all demonstrated their capability. 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 blast your own satellites out of the sky, it may help to remember that this reminds anybody who’s watching that they can destroy a satellite at will. It’s a threat: “If you threaten our infrastructure, we can retaliate.” But each successful test hurls thousands of new pieces of debris into orbit.
Conceptual rendering of pollution in orbit around earth
The risks of space junk might not seem obvious at first. After all, space is enormous, and you might not think it’s very likely that a few bits and pieces might hit something important. But it’s worth remembering that every single object in space, from the International Space Station (ISS) down to the smallest fleck of paint, is hurtling around the Earth at enormous speed, and we keep putting more things up there.
The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) keeps an index of objects launched into space. At the end of January 2022, this list counted 8261 individual satellites, an increase of almost 12% over the previous 10 months. And as Starlink and its rivals settle down to the business of building their mega-constellations of communications satellites, this growth is only going to accelerate. In fact, there have already been collisions between satellites, and it is no longer unusual for satellite owners to dodge each other’s satellites.
Photograph of Canadaarm2 hit by a piece of space debris
So as harmless as it may seem to explode your own things in space, there is a very real threat looming. Every time a satellite is destroyed, whether it was attacked by ASAT weaponry or simply collided with something, that results in thousands of tiny bits of debris spreading out across the original satellite’s orbit. On earth, this would just mean a lot of litter to pick up, but in space, and in orbit, this means thousands of shards of metal, plastic, and ceramics orbiting the planet many times faster than a rifle bullet.
A good example of this was when Russia performed its most recent ASAT test in November 2021. Debris from the destroyed satellite came dangerously close to the International Space station, and emergency action was needed to move it out of harm’s way. This is at the heart of the problem.
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