Anti-satellite weapons must be banned before they cause ‘major fragmentation event’, astronauts and space agencies warn

Experts warn that just one piece of debris from a weapons test could cause dramatic satellite failures and service disruptions

Adam Smith
Thursday 02 September 2021 02:00 BST

A group of former astronauts, international space agencies, Nobel Laureates, and government officials across the world have signed an open letter to stop anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) testing because of its impact on space debris.

The letter was released by The Outer Space Institute, a network of space experts addressing the challenges of off-Earth exploration. It asks that the United Nations ban kinetic anti-satellite which, the letter explains, “employ high velocity physical strikes through the use of a ‘kill vehicle’ or shrapnel to destroy or disable objects in orbit.”

These kinetic weapons were developed by the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s but have been used by nations such as Russia in the decades following.

Russia ”conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon” in July 2020, according to United States Space Command, and again in December that year. China is also progressing with the development of missiles and electronic weapons that could target high- and low-orbiting satellites, according to a Pentagon report.

The United States, meanwhile, is reportedly planning to unveil its own space weapon that could apparently degrade or destroy a target satellite or spacecraft. This was allegedly set to be shown in 2020 alongside the creation of the Space Command and Space Force under the Trump administration, but the COVID-19 pandemic and recent withdrawal from Afghanistan is said to have delayed the announcement.

However these tests have led to concerns from numerous expert figures, including retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, the UK Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, professor of space law Frans von der Dunk, and former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Louise Fréchette.

Debris from these tests often ends up on “highly eccentric” orbits, crossing multiple satellite’s ‘orbital shells’ (a close area around a satellite, like an electron around an atom’s nucleus) twice per revolution.

“If just one piece of debris from such a test collides with a satellite and causes a major fragmentation event, this could lead to additional events affecting all States, which could include further fragmentations, satellite failures, or service disruptions”, the letter states.

Even testing on low-altitude craft would be an issue because the high impact energy of the technology can place debris more than 1000 kilometres above the test altitude.

These effects, while already significantly, would be drastically more dangerous with the development of the four currently planned mega-constallations: the 42,000 satellites of SpaceX’s Starlink, the 3,236 satellites of Amazon’s Kupier, the 7,000 satellites of OneWeb, and the 12,992 satellites of China’s Guo Wang’s StarNet.

The number of active and defunct satellites around the Earth has increased from 3300 to over 7600 in the last decade, and that number could grow to as many as 100,000 satellites before 2030.

“The development of mega-constellations along with the expected growth of crewed space missions make debris-generating ASAT tests significantly more perilous than before”, the letter says, and signatories posit that even the potential military benefits might advance the institute’s arguments, rather than hinder them.

“Using 1000s of satellites to support communications provides redundancy and therefore protection against direct ASAT strikes”, Professor Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, and a co-director of the Outer Space Institute, told The Independent.

“At the same time, moving the relay points for military communications from GEO and MEO to LEO increases exposure to the risk posed by the "Kessler Syndrome" of runaway space debris”, he continued. Kessler Syndrome is a consequence of space debris posed in 1978 by Nasa scientist Donald Kessler, who warned that the domino effect of such an event could create an impenetrable layer of debris that would make terrestrial space launches impossible – essentially trapping us on Earth.

There have been efforts to constrain weapons testing in 1979, when the United States and the Soviet Union came to a preliminary agreement on the matter. However, much like the regulation of space debris collection and management, these initiatives have “lapsed”.

The foundations of the Earth’s interstellar regulation still date prior to human beings landing on the Moon, and with the increase of private space programs governments have little interest in enacting regulation that could slow it down – despite its potential to make such developments safer.

The letter states that numerous countries including Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have expressed the view that kinetic ASAT tests should be avoided. The United States has said that that such tests are a category of behaviour “that could be considered during further development and implementation of norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviors.”

Russia has called for “a complete and comprehensive ban on space-based strike weapons as well as on any land-, air-, or sea-based systems designed to destroy objects in outer space”, it continues, with China expressed a similar view. However, such declarations run contrary to the claims of ASAT testing over the years.

Such events highlight “Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control, with which Moscow aims to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting its own counterspace program — both ground-based anti-satellite capabilities and what would appear to be actual in-orbit anti-satellite weaponry," Dr. Christopher Ford, the US Assistant Secretary of State, said in July 2020.

It is possible that the United States, China, and Russia could develop anti-satellite technology without creating debris. Professor Byers suggested that the weapon the US might reveal could be defensive, “designed to ward off ‘proximity operations’ from other satellites [using an] on-board jamming device or microwave beam that would operate across short distances”. General John Hyten, the vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff who is reportedly championing the as-yet unreleased weapon, has previously spoken against the risk of space debris.

“I hope to never fight a war in space,” Hyten told Scientific American in 2015. “It’s bad for the world. Kinetic [anti-satellite weaponry] is horrible for the world”, but continued that if war did “extend into space” the one limiting factor of the United States offensive and defensive capabilities would be “no debris. Whatever you do, don’t create debris.”

This open letter is not the only recent move to make space exploration safer. The UK government has pushed for an international consensus on responsible behaviour in space, as “the risk of accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculations between nations is escalating” and the potential for malignant cyber attacks on systems that control battlefield communications and even nuclear forces will rise without international communication - a more likely target than mega-constellations, Professor Byers says, due to the fact they are not well-suited for espionage and would be protected by advanced encryption.

“While weapons of mass destruction have been banned in space for over fifty years, there are almost no meaningful constraints on the deployment of new weapons or technologies that can damage or destroy space systems, whether from the ground or in space. UN talks remain stalled as current proposals do nothing to prevent attacks on satellites from the Earth”, the government said.

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