By Isabel Martinez
On November 15, the crew on the International Space Station (ISS) was awoken and told to shelter in their spacecraft because of unexpected approaching debris.
Mission control was alarmed by the pieces of metal debris hurtling toward the station and wanted the crew prepared to return to Earth should the situation prove dire. The potential for collision activates emergency escape protocol, as objects circling Earth in orbit with the ISS travel about seven times faster than a bullet.
The debris was determined to be a direct result of a Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test, aimed to destroy a dormant Soviet signal intelligence satellite, originally launched in 1982. The blast created more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands more too small to detect, which will continue to pose a risk to the ISS crew and satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) for years. As a result, Russia’s dangerous and unnecessary decision led to sharp criticism from across the international community.
This comes at a time when growing concern over the militarization of space, including from U.S. civil and military officials, has led to a push for rules to curb such activities in space. With no established norms, the risk to modern life is a serious concern.
Most satellites, used by all nations, are in LEO. They provide services many of us take for granted like watching TV, using GPS on our phones and in our cars, weather forecasts and storm warnings, emergency transponders, flight telemetry and financial transactions. Satellites are crucial to individual and national security and safety on a daily basis. The United States, particularly the U.S. military, depends on space-based communications far more than Russia, so it is likely the Russian test was meant to undermine this vulnerability.
This was not the first time a country has intentionally removed a satellite. China (2007) and India (2019) have all conducted similar missions or tests, in some cases intentionally polluting the space domain and contributing to the junkyard of human-made space debris, increasing the risk to space operation and satellites.
The significance of the Russian test is that the former Soviet satellite’s orbit intersected with the path of the ISS. Russia placed the people on board, including Russian cosmonauts, at risk, and without any warning.
Interestingly, at the start of this month, an effort to address space norms moved forward on the international stage. On November 1, the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee advanced a resolution “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors.” It calls for an open-ended working group aimed at preventing an arms race in outer space. The resolution was approved by a 163-8 vote, with Russia voting against the resolution.
Established in 1984, the ISS is a multinational collaborative project and symbol of peace.
In destroying an inactive satellite for an unknown and unnecessary reason, Russia threatened the security and sustainability of space. However, with no universal standards, the action demonstrated by Russia is perfectly legal. The international community has no way to hold Russia accountable. Given Moscow’s vast inferiority in space operations, it is sadly almost inevitable that this will happen again. In any conflict scenario, it would likely be one of Russia’s first actions to exploit American dependence on space to cripple military communications. If Congress wanted to make the country more secure, it would devote more resources to protecting critical space-based communications, rather than spending money to revive outdated nuclear systems the military does not want or need.
Moscow needs to hear from all quarters that jeopardizing communication infrastructure and scientific research is unacceptable. The international community should act to prevent further tests of this nature and curb the continued militarization of space before low-Earth orbit and many of our modern-day conveniences, not to mention dreams of future peaceful space exploration, become permanently out of reach.