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Russian Test Highlights Urgency of Ending Debris-Generating Anti-Satellite Tests

Nov 30, 2021

Russia’s November 15 destruction of one of its former Soviet military satellites has generated an enormous debris field. The fragments will endanger China’s Tiangong Space Station and other space-based objects for years to come. Moscow’s move risked the health of its cosmonauts in the International Space Station while jeopardizing plans by Chinese, U.S., and other companies to establish enormous space-satellite networks in coming years. Chinese, U.S., and other scholars, scientists, and officials should entreat their Russian colleagues to agree to ban future debris-generating anti-satellite (ASAT) kills. 

The Russian intercept generated more than 1500 trackable pieces of debris (10 centimeters in size or larger). The laws of physics will lead these fragments to expand in volume. As these pieces collide with each other and other objects at six-seven kilometers per second, they will generate additional fragments. As a result, the debris cloud will overlap with the circular path of the Chinese and International Space Stations approximately every 30 minutes, as well as many of the approximately 3,000 satellites now in low-earth orbit, for years to come. 

The United States and its allies jointly condemned the attack. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Russia’s “recklessly conducted” ASAT test will generate long-lived debris that will “threaten satellites and other space objects that are vital to all nations’ security, economic, and scientific interests for decades to come.” And NASA administrator Bill Nelson expressed outrage that “this irresponsible and destabilizing action…would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts… threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board.” 

Though Chinese diplomacy presently eschews overt criticism of Russian actions, PRC representatives should also use their influence to shape Russian space policy in a more benign direction. China has substantial stakes in keeping the space domain safe and secure for its growing civilian, commercial, and security projects. Beijing also has strong levers of influence in Moscow regarding space questions. 

Sino-Russian space cooperation has grown in recent years. China’s economic resources and space-related technological progress have proven sufficiently attractive to overcome earlier Moscow’s hesitation to collaborate with the PRC on this issue. In 2016, the two governments signed an intellectual property agreement that expanded Russian sales of space technologies to China. The two countries have since aligned their satellite-based terrestrial navigation systems, BeiDou and GLONASS. Russia is also helping China develop its missile early warning system, a capacity previously possessed only by Moscow and Washington. 

Most significantly, in March of this year, China and Russia agreed to coordinate their main space exploration programs by establishing a joint International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). Under its framework, the two countries would launch a series of parallel national construction, extraction, and other missions that would support and build on the other country’s projects. Beijing and Moscow are also considering launching a joint robotic mission to the Kamo’oalwea asteroid in 2024. After returning to the Earth’s orbit, where it would drop some samples to the surface, their probe would rendezvous with a comet. 

In terms of space security, PRC and Russian representatives have often supported each other within various multilateral bodies dealing with space policy. For example, at the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the Chinese and Russian delegations have advocated for a treaty prohibiting the militarization of space. They have also promoted the principle of “no first placement” of weapons in space. 

In a June 2021 interview with a U.S. news station, Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed that, “We are interested in continuing to work with the U.S.” in space but that “doesn't mean that we need to work exclusively with the U.S. We—have been working and will continue to work with China, which applies to all kinds of programs, including—exploring deep space.” Russia is reviewing whether to continue as a member of the International Space Station, join the new Chinese Space Station, or pursue its own national station. 

Given this stance, both Beijing and Washington can exert some influence on Moscow’s space policy—and should apply it to dissuade Russia from conducting further space-producing ASAT tests. The national security establishments of all three countries employ space for critical economic, scientific, and national security missions that they should want to protect. 

Banning militant behavior in space is easier than trying to prohibit types of weaponry there given the dual-use nature of most space capabilities. Even space projects with a declared civilian or commercial purpose have potential national security applications. Prominent dual-use space capabilities include acquiring imagery, forecasting meteorology, remote sensing, precision navigation and timing (through global positioning satellite constellations), global voice and data communications, and the tracking, identification, and discrimination of space objects. Systems that enhance Space Situational Awareness can help monitor space debris to protect assets from collisions, but they can also enable countries to collect military intelligence, detect missile launches, and assess foreign space threats. 

Moscow, Beijing, and Washington could extend their bilateral discussions on space security, such as through the Russian-U.S. working group launched earlier this year. They can also take advantage of the upcoming 2022-2023 session of the UN Open-Ended Working Group to discuss establishing formal multilateral norms of responsible behavior (rules of the road) to prohibit destructive space intercepts. 

However, given the time and difficulties of securing widespread international agreements, and that only a few countries have demonstrated a capacity and interest in shooting down satellites, Russia, China, and the United States could also profitably agree to restore, through unilateral but parallel action, their previous unilateral moratorium on destructive tests. Since all three countries, each with substantial space assets to protect, have shot down satellites with a DA-ASAT weapon, each space power should be more comfortable because they can, if necessary, execute further attacks without additional tests. 

A limited agreement on space debris might also provide a foundation for discussing more challenging issues, such as those dealing with space resource mining or the safety and security implications of emerging space technologies.

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