Paul Meyer is an adjunct professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University and a fellow of the Outer Space Institute.
Russia launched a Nudol missile this past week carrying an anti-satellite weapon, or ASAT, that intercepted Cosmos 1408, a defunct Soviet Union-era intelligence satellite.
This targeted collision of the 2,200-kilogram satellite immediately produced some 1,500 pieces of trackable space debris (fragments greater than 10 centimetres) and hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces. Given orbiting speeds of seven kilometres a second, these pieces can cause damage to any space object hit by them. As the intercept occurred at an altitude of 480 kilometres, much of this debris will remain in space for years to come.
As a result of Russia’s ASAT test, the crew of the International Space Station (including two Russian cosmonauts) had to retreat into the station’s escape capsules as a precaution. As this cloud of debris disperses, it will pose a further risk to the safety of space operations in low Earth orbit, exacerbating the existing problem of accumulated space debris amounting to some 25,000 pieces of trackable size.
Russia made its launch in the wake of similar tests undertaken by China in 2007, the United States in 2008 and India in 2019 – with the Chinese test being similarly egregious for the high altitude at which the intercept occurred, thus ensuring enduring debris. Given that such deliberately created debris threatens everyone’s peaceful use of outer space as enshrined in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, destructive ASAT tests represent the apogee of irresponsible state behaviour.
The Outer Space Treaty’s Article IX stipulates that any state party to the treaty – there are currently 110 states, including the four mentioned above – has an obligation to initiate international consultations if a planned activity has the potential to cause “harmful interference” to the space activity of other parties. Russia did not undertake such consultations and has disingenuously claimed that its test did not represent a danger to any space object.
Although several states have issued criticisms of the Russian action, they have not cited the Article IX responsibility, which can have the detrimental effect of undermining the authority of the treaty. If states want to uphold international law, they have to be prepared to call out actions that violate treaty commitments and cite chapter and verse. There has been a troubling tendency of late for states to ignore or play down the Outer Space Treaty, as if to evade the constraints it represents for their own actions in space.
Indeed, the Russian test also points to a larger problem of an accelerating space arms race in which leading space powers accuse one another of “weaponizing” space – while rapidly developing “counterspace” capabilities that hold at risk the space objects of their adversaries.
Diplomacy has struggled to keep up with the threat of this space arms race, but the United Nations General Assembly recently adopted a resolution that will create a new diplomatic process to consider “reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours.” An open-ended working group is slated to get under way in Geneva, Switzerland, next year. A key aim of the group is to “consider current and future threats by states to space systems, and actions, activities and omissions that could be considered irresponsible.”
For many users of space, the destructive ASAT test conducted by Russia is a prime example of “irresponsible” state action.
Although Russia and China voted against the resolution creating the group (while India abstained), all states are free to participate in the group’s work and even the opponents are expected to do so. In a perverse but plausible explanation, it has been suggested by some experts that Russia carried out its test now to confirm the efficacy of its ASAT before any move to ban such destructive tests could emerge from the new diplomatic process.
Since a curb on debris-causing ASAT tests would benefit all space actors, a ban could represent an easy win for the new group.
An open letter to the UN General Assembly calling for such a ban was initiated by the Vancouver-based Outer Space Institute and has attracted the support of many international space experts. Given the rivalry among the leading space powers, it will be important for other stakeholders including “middle powers” – like Canada, which has been an early proponent of a ban – and the private sector to advocate for early action on an ASAT test ban if the international community wants to preserve outer space for peaceful purposes.
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