A bigger mess has rarely been seen in Earth’s orbit. Last Monday, Russia blasted a direct-ascent missile into one of its own moribund spy satellites, thereby creating about 1,500 trackable pieces of debris and tens of thousands of smaller ones. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it “dangerous and irresponsible.” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called it “outrageous,” “unconscionable” and “pitiful.” They weren’t exaggerating by much.
Undoubtedly, the launch will escalate military tensions and worsen the proliferation of space junk in sensitive orbits. It will endanger satellites and space missions for years to come and could necessitate costly maneuvers to avoid collisions. It briefly put the occupants of the International Space Station — two of whom are Russian cosmonauts — in such danger that they were forced to seek shelter in their capsules. Rather than apologize, Russian officials have boldly insisted that the operation was as safe as could be.
To the contrary, this reckless act caps a run of increasingly irresponsible behavior by Russia. Last year alone, it twice tested direct-ascent anti-satellite systems, while also conducting a sophisticated co-orbital test in which a satellite fired a small projectile that could be used to target an adversary’s spacecraft. Gen. James Dickinson, head of U.S. Space Command, warned that such conduct will “undermine strategic stability and pose a threat to all nations.”
How should the U.S. respond to this latest provocation?
As a start, it should present a united front with allies in condemning the test. Diplomatic rebukes, and potentially even sanctions, wouldn’t be out of line. True, Russia may ignore such efforts. But global criticism followed previous destructive tests by China and India and neither has seemed anxious for a repeat performance.
Next, it’s clear that destructive anti-satellite tests must be reined in. Since 2005, four countries (including the U.S.) have conducted such tests, creating thousands of pieces of hazardous junk; debris from a strike by China in 2007 narrowly missed the ISS earlier this month. Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said that destructive tests are “not compatible with the future of human spaceflight.” Worse: They threaten the 87 percent of satellites that are nonmilitary and crucial for everything from navigation to cell-phone service.
International efforts to constrain such activity have failed for decades. But with space junk multiplying dangerously, and private-sector satellites filling the skies, it’s plausible that spacefaring nations will recognize their mutual interest in preventing more such tests. The U.S. made progress earlier this year, when it circulated a memo specifying five “tenets of responsible behavior” that it would follow in space, including limiting “the generation of long-lived debris.” Renewed pressure on other countries should follow.
Finally, the U.S. needs to demonstrate that its space capabilities are resilient enough to withstand such attacks, and thereby reduce the incentive to target them. Congress created the Space Force in 2019 in part to protect critical satellite networks from adversaries. By working with allies and commercial satellite providers, the new service branch needs to show that a few anti-satellite missiles won’t be enough to derail American military capabilities in the event of a conflict.
Never before has space been so crucial to global commerce and welfare. That’s all the more reason to avoid a new arms race and ensure sanity prevails.