Debris formed due to the use of anti-satellite weapons are threatening the future of space activities which could cause collisions.
Thousands of satellites orbit the Earth at any given time for commercial, civil, strategic, and military purposes.
Countries have developed anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons that can be used to disable or destroy satellites in orbit due to the importance of certain satellites for national security.
While some ASAT weapons utilize non-destructive methods to disrupt satellites, such as cyberattacks or lasers, destructive weapons rely on high-speed physical collisions to shatter satellites, causing negative consequences for the space environment.
The Secure World Foundation’s infographic below demonstrates how destructive ASAT testing is blocking outer space and contributing to the growing amount of space debris in Earth’s orbits.
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The Impact of Destructive Anti-Satellite Weapons
When destructive ASAT weapons collide with satellites, thousands to millions of pieces of debris are created, which can orbit the Earth at extremely high speeds for decades.
The destruction of a single 10-ton satellite, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (pdf below), can result in:
- 8 to 14 million debris pieces between 1mm and 1cm in size
- 250,000 to 750,000 debris pieces between 1cm and 10cm
- 5,000 to 15,000 debris pieces greater than 10cm
The debris from catastrophic ASAT tests will be added to the 8,800 metric tons of space debris already in orbit. Because space debris may fly at rates of up to 29,000 kilometers per hour (approximately 8 kilometers per second), even millimeter-sized bits pose a major risk to other objects in orbit.
In reality, since 1999, the International Space Station (ISS) has conducted 29 debris avoidance maneuvers, which entail rerouting to avoid collisions with debris.
The History and Aftermath of Destructive ASAT Tests
Only four countries—Russia (previously the USSR), China, the United States, and India in history—have successfully used destructive ASAT weapons of two types:
- Co-orbital: Weapons that are placed into orbit and maneuver close to a target and attack it by various means, including direct collision, fragmentation, or using robotic arms.
- Direct-ascent: Missiles that are launched from the Earth’s surface or from air to destroy a satellite target in orbit.
These four countries have successfully executed 15 destructive ASAT tests since 1968, resulting in thousands of pieces of tracked debris scattered across vast distances.
The Soviet Union launched a succession of satellites between 1961 and 1982 for various missions, including testing of its co-orbital ASAT weapons under the Istrebitel Sputnikov (literally “destroyer of satellites”) program. Some of its tracked debris is still orbiting the Earth in 2022, 40 to 50 years after these experiments.
In terms of debris creation, China’s destruction of the FengYun 1C weather satellite in 2007 was by far the most devastating ASAT test. It was the first successful direct-ascension ASAT test since 1985, with over 3,400 pieces of tracked debris.
Russia made headlines in November 2021 after a devastating direct-ascent test that resulted in about 1,400 new pieces of tracked debris and hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments. The test’s aftermath prompted calls for a worldwide ban on destructive ASAT testing.
It’s also worth noting that debris from these tests isn’t just orbiting the Earth; it’s also spreading well beyond the altitude where the testing took place. Some fragments from China’s 2007 test, for example, traveled more than 3,000 kilometers beyond the Earth’s surface.
The Call to Ban Destructive Testing
Deliberately destroyed satellite debris is dangerous and unmanageable, posing a threat to other satellites and spacecraft. Preventing more debris from being created when more satellites and manned spacecraft enter space is crucial to ensuring the long-term viability of space activities.
Following Russia’s recent test, the United States became the first country to pledge not to undertake destructive ASAT testing, pushing other countries to do the same.
“These tests, to be sure, are reckless as they are irresponsible.”
– U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris
Read the report given below: