The United States changes its mind and agrees to stop anti-satellite tests

Eric Bottlaender

Space specialist

April 19, 2022 at 1:30 p.m.


Debris Microsat-r in orbit in September 2019

Artist’s impression of the debris caused by the Indian ASAT test, carried out in February 2019 © NA

Vice President Kamala Harris yesterday announced a US halt to missile testing ASAT (anti-satellite) and called on other countries to join the same movement. This gesture comes in the midst of a crisis with Russia, but raises questions, because the United States has opposed these proposals for decades.

It is nevertheless encouraging in order to avoid a maximum of debris in orbit.

End of series for ASAT?

In mid-November, the gesture surprised as much as it horrified part of the world: Russia was testing a Nudol anti-satellite missile, thus pulverizing an old Soviet satellite into several thousand pieces of debris in low orbit. The trajectory of the debris even concerned the International Space Station, in which the astronauts had to take their precautions.

The United States in particular had raised its voice on this occasion, but this reaction had seemed hypocritical. Indeed, in 2008, the USA had also destroyed one of their satellites, generating similar concerns… And since then, they have opposed any international agreement on the subject. Both China and India have demonstrated this same capability over the past 15 years.

The model United States…

But everything changes: Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States (and leader of the Space Council) announced that her country would permanently cease its ASAT tests. The nation that has long argued that space is a place of freedom where everyone can do what they want…wants the other major powers to commit in turn to no longer test missiles on old units. At a time when orbital traffic management is shaping up to be a challenge for the decade, the obvious concern remains that linked to a “cascade” (also called Kessler’s syndrome), when a piece of debris hits a satellite, which at its tower disintegrates and becomes a danger to other satellites, and so on.

But, even without indirectly hitting other units in low orbit, the congestion and risks posed by ASAT testing are long-lasting. Several hundred pieces of debris from the deliberate destruction of the Chinese satellite Fengyun-1C in 2007 are still in orbit… Not to mention that the smallest pieces, with a diameter of a few centimeters, can escape detection from radar on the ground.

The United Nations has been calling on the major powers for more than a decade to agree on the subject. However, it was necessary to go beyond the intention. If it is utopian to believe that the major space powers will do without these weapons in the near future, committing to no longer testing them in real conditions constitutes a significant step forward.

ESA debris © ESA

Micrometeorites and debris in orbit are subject to special monitoring by ESA, a subject that has become increasingly important over the years © ESA

Alternatives with less debris

Can an international moratorium on ASAT tests succeed? This is not certain, especially since the international context is complex since the exchanges of sanctions between the United States, Europe and Russia. Nevertheless, with technological progress helping, it would be possible to do without this technology.

A certain number of powers are also working on alternative anti-satellite means: blinding, destruction by laser, “killer satellite”…

Source : The Verge

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