U.S.-Led ASAT Test Moratorium Gains Ground

U.S.-Led ASAT Test Moratorium Gains Ground

The U.S. pledge not to conduct debris-producing direct-ascent antisatellite tests is gaining more ground. Switzerland is the eighth country to join the U.S. commitment and a United Nations committee approved a draft resolution supporting it as a norm of responsible behavior in space.

Vice President Kamala Harris pledged in April that the United States will not conduct debris-generating direct-ascent ASAT tests and invited other countries to join what now commonly is referred to as the ASAT test moratorium.

Switzerland has accepted the invitation along with Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Australia. Together with the United States, that makes nine.

The goal is not to ban ASATs or ASAT testing, but to prevent the creation of more space debris that litters Earth orbit and imperils satellites of all space-faring nations. The moratorium is only on ASAT tests where a satellite is destroyed by impact. Testing an ASAT system against a point in space, for example, is not prohibited.

The U.S. push for ending such tests follows the November 15, 2021 Russian ASAT test against its own Kosmos 1408. A Russian missle intentionally rammed into the satellite, creating about 1,500 pieces of trackable debris and many more too small to track.

Among the spacecraft affected by the debris is the International Space Station. The seven people aboard the ISS at the time, including two Russian cosmonauts, had to shelter in their spacecraft for about a day as debris whizzed by in case they had to make an emergency return to Earth. NASA estimates the debris risk to the ISS doubled because of that event and continues to do so. Just last week the ISS had to change its orbit to avoid a piece of debris from the test.

The International Space Station as seen by the departing Crew-2, November 8, 2021. Credit: NASA

The Secure World Foundation maintains a spreadsheet of all debris-generating ASAT tests, the number of pieces of trackabe debris created, and how many are still in orbit.  Russia, the United States, China and India are the only countries to conduct direct-ascent debris-generating ASAT tests. None remain from the U.S. and only 11 from India, but there are 2,763 from China’s test in 2007 and 1,225 pieces from Russia’s in 2021.

The United States wants an end to this kind of test as an internationally-accepted norm of behavior in space. That means getting agreement from as many countries as possible, not just those who have or intend to build such weapons.

In addition to talking to countries individually, it is working through the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats and in September announced it would propose the ban for adoption by the United Nations General Assembly.

The United States plans to submit a resolution to the UN First Committee at the 77th session of the UN General Assembly calling upon countries to commit not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile (ASAT) tests, as such tests can undermine international peace and security and are a threat to the long-term sustainability of the outer space environment and to all countries’ ability to explore and use outer space for peaceful purposes. This resolution demonstrates the commitment of the United States to developing transparency and confidence-building measures and norms of responsible behavior for outer space activities that could ultimately lead towards the negotiation of a legally binding agreement limiting destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests. The United States encourages all nations to recognize that destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests are in no one’s interest, and to support this resolution and make the commitment described therein as a key principle of space security. — U.S. State Department

A first step is approval of a draft resolution by the U.N. First Committee, which deals with disarmament, global challenges, and threats to peace that affect the international community. Earlier this week, the committee adopted the U.S. draft resolution by a vote of 154-8, with 10 abstentions.

The eight voting no were Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Russian Federation, and Syria.

India, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Madagascar, Pakistan, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, and Zimbabwe abstained.

Although the three other countries that have conducted such tests (China, Russia and India) did not vote yes, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance expressed gratitude for the “resounding international support.”

For its part, Russia has offered no apologies for the debris it created and recently threatened commercial satellites that are used to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion, calling them legitimate targets.

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