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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Russia is staging shows of military might in orbit as its civil and commercial space sector loses its longstanding edge.

Why it matters: These demonstrations threaten to undermine responsible behavior in space, and could put U.S. military — and possibly commercial — assets in orbit at risk.

  • The U.S. in particular relies on space-based tools for situational awareness, communications, intelligence gathering and other key aspects of warfighting.

Driving the news: Russia has steadily been building its military capabilities in orbit, according to a pair of reports about space weapons released last week.

  • According to the reports — from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Secure World Foundation — Russia performed multiple tests of anti-satellite weapons in 2020.
  • One of the most notable was the nation's use of a satellite that appeared to fly close to a U.S. spy satellite before moving away and firing a projectile not far from another, unrelated Russian satellite.
  • Other nations, like China and India, have also tested their own military capabilities in orbit in past years, including developing jamming technologies and anti-satellite missiles.

The big picture: Russia's capabilities aren't necessarily new, but the nation's most recent testing of its space weapons has some experts concerned that these types of tests will just inflame tensions in orbit.

  • "If you look at what's actually happening, the Russians have been extremely active, and much more so than I think even the Chinese have been," Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation told Axios.
  • Russia also seemingly has less to lose in space if these types of tests become the norm by comparison to a nation like the U.S., which relies more than any other country on expensive assets in orbit for warfighting.

The intrigue: Russia's space industry and civil space program have faced headwinds in recent years, from budget shortfalls to launch failures to competition from SpaceX and others.

  • And with the International Space Station program coming to an end in the coming years, Russia's close ties in space with the U.S. are fraying.

Military space operations appear to be the area where Russia is hoping to maintain its prestige, Samson added.

  • The nation is focusing many of its military efforts — including inspecting that U.S. spy satellite — in low-Earth orbit (LEO), the part of space where many commercial satellite constellations function.
  • "This kind of unusual behavior is more concerning, especially as the United States commercial industry looks to really invest and grow its presence in LEO," Kaitlyn Johnson of CSIS told Axios.

Yes, but: No nation has used destructive capabilities against their enemies in orbit, instead opting to test kinetic weapons on their own defunct satellites or in empty parts of space.

  • Countries likely won't use those capabilities unless they're at war and conflicts have escalated, instead opting for electronic means of jamming satellites or intercepting signals from enemy spacecraft, according to experts in space security.
  • The concern isn't necessarily that Russia or other nations will use its military capabilities in orbit to start wars, but that these tools could be used once conflicts have already broken out on the ground.
  • "What happens in space reflects what's going on on the ground," Samson said. "So if there's increased potential for conflict in space, that wouldn't be happening independent of increased head-butting on the ground."

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Apr 3, 2021 - Science

Companies race to design private space stations before ISS goes offline

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Companies are rapidly designing private space stations that could one day dominate operations in orbit around Earth.

Why it matters: NASA is hoping private industry will start to take over operations in low-Earth orbit once the International Space Station comes to an end, creating a robust commercial market in that part of space.

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Image: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine Thursday night, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.

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