Kamala Harris announces that the US will no longer conduct anti-satellite tests

Tonight Vice President Kamala Harris announces that the United States will no longer conduct anti-satellite or ASAT missile tests – the practice of using ground-based missiles to destroy satellites in orbit around the Earth. Harris is urging other countries to make the same commitment and establish this policy as the new “standard for responsible behavior in space.”

Harris will speak in more detail about the new commitment during a speech at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California tonight. Harris currently chairs the White House’s National Space Council, a leadership advisory group that helps set the nation’s space agenda.

That statement comes five months later Russia conducted an ASAT test in November. The country launched one of its Nudol rockets from Earth, which destroyed Russia’s Cosmos-1408 satellite, a Soviet-era spacecraft that has been in orbit since the 1980s. The event created a huge cloud of more than 1,500 pieces of trackable debris, as well as thousands of smaller pieces that could not be detected. The satellite’s destruction occurred in fairly close orbit to that of the International Space Station, prompting the astronauts on board to temporarily hide in their spacecraft in case the debris should damage the facility.

The United States was quick to condemn the test, as were NATO and the European Union. Tests like this — known as direct ascent ASAT tests — are widely despised because they tend to generate hazardous debris. The remnants of ASAT tests can spread for kilometers and often remain in orbit for months or even years, threatening the space environment. ASAT debris cannot be controlled and travels at many thousands of miles per hour, so even a small fragment can damage or knock out a functioning satellite during a collision.

Although the space community generally despises ASAT testing, in the more than 60 years that countries have been testing the technology, no country has called for a moratorium on the practice. Now the United States is taking that step in the face of Russia’s actions. “I think it’s a really powerful move,” says Victoria Samson, military space expert at the Secure World Foundation think tank The edge. “The US is the first country to make this type of statement, and I really hope that other countries will follow suit – particularly those that have also tested anti-satellite weapons in space, but also those that have not.”

Because the same missile technology used to destroy a fast-moving satellite can also be used to intercept ICBMs, ASAT tests can serve as technology demonstrations. But these tests are prevalent very loud demonstrations of power. When a country demonstrates that it can destroy one of its own satellites, it broadcasts to the world that it has the ability to also destroy an opponent’s satellites.

To date, no country has actually used ASAT technology to take out another country’s spacecraft. Instead, only four countries have demonstrated this technology on their own satellites. Russia has been testing its Nudol technology for years, but only successfully destroyed a satellite from the ground in November. 2019, India has destroyed one of its own satellites, creating a few hundred pieces of debris, half of which have already burned up in our planet’s atmosphere. And in 2007, China destroyed its defunct Fengyun-1C weather satellite, creating thousands of fragments. Some of this debris is still in orbit today, causing problems; in November, just before Russia conducted its ASAT test of the International Space Station had to accelerate its orbit to get out of the way one of the leftover pieces from China’s ASAT test.


The astronauts aboard the International Space Station had to take shelter after Russia’s ASAT test in November.
Image: NASA

The US has perhaps been testing ASAT technology the longest, conducting its last debris-producing test as early as 2008. As part of a mission called “Burnt FrostUS Strategic Command launched a missile at a decaying National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite. The US apologized that the satellite contained almost 1,000 pounds of a toxic propellant called hydrazine and launching the satellite was merely a safety measure to stop the propellant from doing so Deal damage if the satellite survives the fall through Earth’s atmosphere.

Although it has been more than a decade since the US conducted an ASAT test, the US has been reluctant to call for an end to the practice. “Until a few years ago, that wasn’t the US position,” says Samson. “The US wanted complete freedom of action in space under all circumstances.”

However, the orbit around the earth has become increasingly dense in recent years. It has become easier and cheaper for companies to send privately built satellites into space. Meanwhile, companies like SpaceX and OneWeb have begun building megaconstellations of orbiting satellites consisting of hundreds and even thousands of satellites. Earth orbit will only get more crowded as other companies and countries consider launching similar mega-constellations to stay competitive.

Just add more Debris in this environment only increases the risk of collision. Russia’s ASAT test in November showed just how threatening this debris plume can be when it endangers astronauts aboard the International Space Station. In December, Kathleen Hicks, Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Defense, stated expressed the wish that the international community would stop the ASAT tests during a meeting of the National Space Council. “We want all nations to agree to refrain from anti-satellite weapons tests that generate debris,” she said.

Now the Biden administration is making that wish official, with the US leading the effort, and calling on other countries to do the same. However, it is unclear which countries will actually follow suit and there is currently no way to hold countries accountable for their pledges.

However, the international community seems willing to take some position on ASAT testing. In May, the United Nations convened a permanent working group tasked with setting “norms, rules and principles for responsible behavior” in space. One of the issues the group is working on is debris generating events caused by the deliberate destruction of spacecraft in orbit. “From what we’ve heard, many countries are interested in something like an ASAT test moratorium,” Samson says.

Of course, there is a lengthy process between today’s announcement and some sort of declaration of international law. “It’s absolutely a first step,” says Samson. “We hope there will be many more.” Kamala Harris announces that the US will no longer conduct anti-satellite tests

Fry Electronics Team

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