Apr 19, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Harris: U.S. will no longer test anti-satellite missiles

Vice President Kamala Harris speaking at Vandenberg Space Force Base on April 18.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaking at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on April 18. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The U.S. will no longer test direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles in space because of the dangers of the space debris created by them, Vice President Kamala Harris announced at Vandenberg Space Force Base Monday.

Why it matters: Harris condemned Russia's ASAT test in November, which generated at least 1,500 pieces of debris that threatened the International Space Station and its crew and could go on to threaten other satellites.

  • Russia claimed at the time that debris created by the test "did not and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities" and called the U.S. accusations "hypocritical."
  • Independent astronomers and satellite trackers also concluded that debris threatened those aboard the ISS.

How it works: Destructive weapon tests in space can generate thousands of pieces of debris that may stay in orbit and pose a risk for space-based technologies and people for years or even decades.

  • The U.S. conducted several weapons tests in space over the decades, though its last was in 2008, when it destroyed a defunct spy satellite in low orbit with a missile. That test produced 174 pieces of debris, according to Secure World Foundation.
  • China tested a direct-ascent kinetic weapon in 2007 that spawned a cloud of more than 3,000 pieces of space debris, some of which are still in orbit.
  • India successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon in March 2019. That test, too, created hundreds of pieces of debris, though the Indian government took steps to limit the amount of time those fragments would remain in orbit.

What they're saying: "We must write the new rules of the road, and we lead by example," Harris said. "These tests, to be sure, are reckless and they are irresponsible. These tests also put in danger so much of what we do in space."

  • "We are the first nation to make such a commitment, and today, on behalf of the United States of America, I call on all nations to join us, whether they are spacefaring or not. We believe this will benefit everyone, just as space benefits everyone."

The big picture: Militaries have increasingly focused on developing and testing anti-satellite weapons in recent years, and more competition and congestion in space may pressure additional countries to pursue such technologies.

Go deeper: Russia threatens to end cooperation with International Space Station

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