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Stephen Buono is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
As if living in space weren’t difficult enough.
The Russian military recently tested a direct-ascent antisatellite, or ASAT, missile on an old Soviet orbital, Cosmos 1408. The resulting cloud of debris — numbering 1,500 individual pieces so far — sent astronauts aboard the International Space Station scrambling for safety as the wreckage passed near the craft every 90 minutes. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed NASA and Pentagon officials in criticizing the “dangerous and irresponsible” demonstration. The political fallout is still ongoing.
Russia’s test comes on the heels of a slew of international ASAT experiments that have occurred in recent years. In January 2007, China destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a kinetic kill vehicle. A year later the United States intercepted a defunct National Reconnaissance Office satellite, which contained nearly 1,000 pounds of toxic hydrazine fuel, using a modified SM-3 missile.
India joined the party in 2019 with Mission Shakti, which adapted an anti-ballistic missile interceptor for the ASAT role. Over the last 19 months Russia has conducted three other nonlethal ASAT tests, one of which confirmed a co-orbital ASAT capability.
Now, more than ever, we need a multilateral agreement, perhaps even a binding treaty, on antisatellite weapons. We ignore the problem at our peril.
Indeed, catastrophe looms. Altogether these tests have produced thousands of pieces of orbital debris, which have joined the millions of “space junk” objects already circling the globe around the clock. At this very moment, the Defense Department’s global Space Surveillance Network is monitoring more than 27,000 such objects, the vast majority of which are larger than a softball. An uncountable multitude of other debris is too small to track.
In their orbits these fragments travel at speeds up to 15,700 miles per hour. That’s more than 10 times the speed of a flying bullet and more than 20 times the speed of sound, fast enough to turn a toaster into a locomotive, a paint chip into piercing shrapnel. British astronaut Tim Peake brought the point home in 2016 when he snapped a photo of a dent in the glass window of the space station that had been inflicted by a crumb-sized scrap of debris no more than a few thousandths of a millimeter across. That’s about the width of dental floss.
Imagine the cascading damage that might ensue from continued testing. An ASAT weapon eradicates a satellite. The debris crosses paths with one of more than 5,000 active satellites now occupying low-earth orbit. More debris is created. The increasing mass of whirling garbage destroys more satellites. Still more debris. And on and on it could go until the entire space-based infrastructure on which we rely is at risk.
NASA scientists Donald Kessler and Burton Cour-Palais imagined just such a scenario in a seminal 1978 paper for the Journal of Geophysical Research. Collisions between the growing number of LEO satellites, they predicted, would lead to the growth of a belt of debris around the Earth. “Under certain conditions the belt could begin to form within this century and could be a significant problem during the next century,” the scientists wrote.
Remarkably, in the very same month that Kessler and Cour-Palais published their findings, the United States and the Soviet Union began talks to place limits on ASAT weapons. The two sides held three rounds of talks.
Then, seemingly overnight, new life breathed into the Cold War: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States’ refusal to sign the SALT II treaty, and Jimmy Carter’s withdrawal from the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Though the Kremlin submitted a draft treaty on space weapons to the United Nations in 1981 and again in 1983, no agreement on ASATs was forthcoming.
We are even further away from that agreement 43 years later, when “the Kessler syndrome,” as the cascading theory is known, appears to be a real possibility.
It is essential that the ASAT players — China, India, Russia and the United States — begin multilateral talks to mitigate the environmental and security risks posed by the destruction of satellites. Though diplomats from each of these powers have issued declarations professing deep-felt objections to “the militarization of outer space,” to date they’ve rung hollow.
Thankfully avenues for reconciliation already exist. Canadian law professor Michael Byers headlines a massive list of experts who have written an open letter outlining the contours of a Kinetic ASAT Test Ban Treaty. Since the mid-1980s the United Nations has hosted committee debates and issued resolutions for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space Treaty, which would forbid the use of force against space objects. And the U.N.’s Institute for Disarmament Research has submitted its own proposal for ASAT test guidelines.
Now for Pete’s sake, for our Wi-Fi’s sake, get started!