UK and South Korea Join Pledge Against Destructive ASAT Tests

UK and South Korea Join Pledge Against Destructive ASAT Tests

The United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea joined the U.S. pledge not to conduct destructive antisatellite tests today. In April, Vice President Harris announced the United States will forgo debris-creating direct-ascent ASAT tests and is hoping other countries will follow suit. Russia’s ASAT test in November 2021 imperiled the International Space Station among many other satellites and more than a thousand hazardous pieces of debris remain.

The U.S. pledge is very narrow and applies only to debris-generating direct-ascent kinetic-energy (KE) ASAT tests. Direct-ascent ASATs are only one of many means of counteracting another country’s satellites, and tests can be conducted against a point in space instead of actually impacting a satellite. Harris’s pledge is not a commitment to forgo “counterspace” capabilities entirely, only not to conduct debris-generating tests.

The United States, Soviet Union/Russia, China and India are the only countries to have deliberately destroyed their own satellites this way. Such tests date back almost to the beginning of the space program, but with space becoming increasingly crowded, concern about whether it will be useable by future generations — space sustainability — is growing.

Today is the beginning of World Space Week, a U.N.-declared annual celebration of the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. The theme this year, Sputnik’s 65th anniversary, is “Space and Sustainability.”

China’s 2007 test against one of its old weather satellites drew international condemnation less because of concerns about using weapons in space, but because of the more than 3,000 pieces of debris it created, most of which are still in orbit. But that was not the last time a country destroyed one of its own satellites.

The most recent officially acknowledged U.S. direct-ascent ASAT test was in 1985, when an F-15 launched Miniature Homing Vehicle hit the U.S. Solwind satellite. But in 2008, the U.S. destroyed the USA-193 satellite with a missile launched from an Aegis cruiser in Operation Burnt Frost after it malfunctioned and could not be controlled. By some accounts, the satellite had to be destroyed to prevent hazardous hydrazine propellant from potentially harming populated regions if it made an uncontrolled reentry. Others consider it an ASAT test in response to China’s test.

India conducted a direct-ascent ASAT test in 2019.

Russia’s test on November 15 against its Cosmos 1408 satellite came as quite a surprise because it had been testing the Nudol system against points in space, not satellites. Testing against points in space is not prohibited by the U.S. ban, only against objects since the goal is to avoid creating debris.

The Secure World Foundation maintains a spreadsheet of all debris created by ASAT tests since 1963 and how many pieces remain in orbit today. Of the 1,402 pieces catalogued from Russia’s test, 1,225 remain almost a year later.

Some of the debris came close to the International Space Station, forcing the seven people aboard, including two Russian cosmonauts, to shelter in their spacecraft for about a day in case the ISS was damaged and they had to quickly return to Earth.

The Expedition-66 crew was aboard the ISS when Russia conducted its November 15, 2021 ASAT test. They had to shelter in their spacecraft for about a day in case debris damaged the space station.  L-R: Pyotr Dubrov (Russia), Thomas Marshburn (NASA), Anton Shkaplerov (Russia), Raja Chari (NASA), Mark Vande Hei (NASA), Kayla Barron (NASA), Matthias Maurer (ESA).

Canada and New Zealand were the first two countries to join the U.S. pledge. Japan and Germany joined last month during a meeting of the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Reducing Space Threats.

The United Kingdom proposed creation of the OEWG at the U.N. last year and today joined the U.S. pledge, bringing the group to six. In announcing the decision, Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey, Commander of U.K. Space Command, called it a “positive step for the security of the space domain.”

South Korea also joined the pledge today, making the announcement during a speech at the U.N. First Committee (1:17:34 in this video.)

That makes just seven countries, including the United States, to make the pledge in these past six months.

The United States is about to embark on a second route to build support. Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, told the U.N. First Committee yesterday that the U.S. will introduce a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly calling on all countries to make the commitment.

Victoria Samson, Director of the Secure World Foundation’s Washington Office, told today that she is “cautiously optimistic” more countries will join.

“I imagine for a lot of these countries, it’s taken a while to work the decision through their own interagency processes. I would expect several more over the next few months.” Agreeing to the U.S. resolution at the UNGA is another way for countries to indicate their support, she added, without necessarilly having to formally make the commitment. It is “part of a larger picture of demonstrating how the international community views this type of behavior.”


Note: this article was updated after confirming that South Korea joined the pledge on October 4 in addition to the UK. The original article said the announcement was expected in coming days.

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