ASAT Tests Highlights Urgent Need of Space Security Governance

The kinetic ASAT test is fueling the drive for additional governance mechanisms to limit operations like weapons testing that create space debris on purpose.

FREMONT CA: The testing of kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, as well as the debris they generate, is currently gaining international attention and concern. This is partially because of Russia's  ASAT test, their extended use and dependency on space, and also due to the accelerating development, testing, and demonstration of kinetic ASAT capabilities. This testing is not only at the epicenter of the relationship between safety, sustainability, and security in space, but its consequences affect all users and uses of this domain. The current inability to curb such testing highlights ongoing gaps in outer space security governance.

Kinetic anti-satellite weapons inflict physical damage or destruction on their targets. Direct-ascension weapons, which launch a missile or other projectile from Earth to intercept a satellite in orbit, are closely related to anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense systems; modified ABMs have been tested against space objects on diverse instances. Although kinetic ASAT capabilities have existed from the beginning of the space era, there is no evidence that they have ever been deployed in hostile action against another state's assets. Several kinetic ASAT experiments were undertaken by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, using a co-orbital weapon system that targeted objects in space from orbit. The United States, China, and Russia have demonstrated direct-ascent kinetic intercepts on their own defunct satellites. More recent activity includes China's use of a mid-range anti-ballistic missile to destroy the Feng Yun 1C meteorological satellite at an orbit altitude of 865 kilometers.

The Secure World Foundation has published a list of 75 known ASAT experiments, including ground-based and co-orbital, with 17 of them hitting a target in space. While weapons testing in space has been happening for years, the increasing number of satellites and even humans in orbit increases the possibility of catastrophic collisions and other reverberation impacts from space debris. Space debris constitutes a significant, unrelenting, and indiscriminate threat to the sustainability of the space environment and the operational integrity of all spacecraft. Furthermore, the impact of each additional piece of debris is not linear; the Kessler Syndrome proposes that space debris could reach a critical mass, triggering a cascade effect that exponentially increases the likelihood of damaged or disabled working satellites.


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