Sep 13, 2022 - Science

U.S. wants global powers to agree not to blow up satellites in space

Illustration of a satellite under a bell jar
Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Modern communication and navigation depend on sophisticated satellites in space — and world leaders are trying to come up with rules that would prevent each other from blowing up those tools.

Why it matters: Simply testing an anti-satellite weapon can create dangerous debris, even leaving aside the consequences if a potential future conflict played out in space.

  • Efforts to come up with international rules for how space should be used have stalled in the UN for more than a decade.
  • But experts say the increasingly important role of satellites across industries and vast swaths of life could soon spur countries to advance protective measures on the international stage.

Driving the news: A UN working group is meeting in Geneva this week to address how best to establish rules that would reduce the potential for conflicts in orbit.

  • Vice President Kamala Harris announced last week that the U.S. will put forth a resolution at the UN General Assembly calling on countries to stop testing destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons.
  • In April, Harris announced the U.S. would no longer test anti-satellite weapons. Canada, Japan and New Zealand have also stated they won't test these types of weapons.
  • "Our goal is that this resolution is adopted with the broadest possible support," the State Department's Monica Medina said during the National Space Council meeting last week.

Background: Destructive anti-satellite tests have left parts of Earth's orbit littered with debris in recent years.

  • Space debris moves at more than 17,000 mph. Even paint-chip-sized bits of junk can be devastating because of their speed.
  • Russia conducted an anti-satellite test in 2021, blowing up its own satellite with a missile and creating thousands of pieces of space debris. Some of that space junk threatened to hit the International Space Station.
  • India, China and the U.S. have also performed destructive anti-satellite weapons tests.

The stakes are highest for the U.S. — and increasingly China — both of which have sophisticated satellites that underpin their military activity.

  • But other countries have also started to increasingly rely on space for everyday life, potentially leading to a groundswell of support for establishing rules that would keep Earth's orbit safe for use.

Yes, but: Not all nations see eye to eye on defining the biggest threats.

  • The U.S. views reckless behavior — like testing destructive anti-satellite weapons that can create space debris — as a primary threat.
  • But Russia and China say they are concerned about weapons placed in space, which is the focus of a treaty the countries proposed in the UN.

Between the lines: There are other, nondestructive means of messing with enemy satellites — from jamming to dazzling — which leave them temporarily disabled and are harder to attribute to a bad actor.

What to watch: Whether nations can find far-reaching common ground around weapons testing remains to be seen.

  • "It is possible this week could become more contentious as they discuss various concepts of what threats to space are," the Secure World Foundation's Victoria Samson, who is in Geneva for the meeting this week, tells Axios.
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