Evaluating International Rules Against Destructive ASAT Tests

On October 12th, during the Economist's Space Economy Summit, an online session shed light on the dangers of ASAT tests and the need for international rules

Last week, Space Voyaging had the pleasure of participating as a Media Partner at the Economist’s Space Economy Summit. The event took place in Los Angeles on October 11th and online on October 12th.

During the online sessions, which covered various topics related to the space economy, took place an interesting panel titled: “Houston, we have a problem”: is there the will to create a global moratorium on anti-satellite testing? A discussion on the feasibility and importance of an international commitment against destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) tests.

The online session occured during the second day of the Economist's Space Economy Summit. Credits: Economist Impact
The online session occured during the second day of the Economist’s Space Economy Summit. Credits: Economist Impact

The session was moderated by Jacqueline Feldscher, Managing Editor at Payload, and saw the participation of:

  • Audrey Schaffer, VP for Strategy and Policy at Slingshot Aerospace;
  • Eric Desautels, Director of the Office of Emerging Security Challenges, US Department of State;
  • Sarah Erickson, research assistant a UNIDIR;
  • Dr. Peter Martinez, executive director of the Secure World Foundation.


The danger posed by ASAT Tests

Anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) are weapons developed to destroy or incapacitate foreign spacecraft orbiting Earth. There are essentially two types of ASATs: 

  • Kinetic energy ASATs physically destroy the target, using another spacecraft (co-orbital ASAT) or ballistic missiles (direct ascent ASAT) launched directly from Earth;
  • Non-kinetic ASATs uses cyber-attacks, jamming, and lasers to neutralize the target.

To date, four countries developed and tested direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles: the USA, Russia, China, and India.

The greatest danger posed by tests of this type of weapon is the fragmentation of satellites, leading to the dispersal of significant amounts of space debris. Those debris can become a serious danger for space infrastructures (space stations, communication satellites…) and potentially trigger the Kessler Syndrome. So far there’s been more debris generated by destructive ASAT tests, than by accidental collisions or breakups in space.

“So far these types of tests have created more than 6,850 pieces of trackable debris, we expect many smaller pieces, too small to be tracked. About 3,500 of them are still in orbit and will most likely be in orbit for years to come.”

“The International community has developed several international standards and guidelines for the mitigation of space debris. Those measures have slowed the debris proliferation. However a single destructive anti-satellite test can nullify, in just one instant, the collective efforts over years and years.”

— Dr. Peter Martinez, executive director of the Secure World Foundation


The need for global regulation

Following a Russian test in November 2021, the United States became the first country to adopt a national commitment to ban destructive direct-ascent ASAT tests. In December 2022, the UN General Assembly approved a non-binding resolution, urging countries to ban future anti-satellite tests. 155 countries voted in support of the resolution while 9 countries voted against it. Last August, the 27 European Union member states also announced their commitment not to conduct anti-satellite missile tests.

UN General Assembly 2022. Credits: UN Photo/Loey Felipe
UN General Assembly 2022. Credits: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

“We have 35 countries now who have made national commitments. Every chance we get diplomatically, we are out there talking to other countries, encouraging them to make this very important step,” Eric Desautels affirmed, “we thought that the United Nations would be the appropriate place to have these conversations, both from a legal treaty perspective, as well as trying to get the UN focused on these issues.”

As underlined by Dr Martinez during the session, it is quite difficult to assess and rapidly implement international legally binding instruments against ASAT tests. First of all, the very definition of a space weapon is being questioned.

“Some argue that the major threat to space security is the risk of an arm’s race in outer space, while others argue that the most pressing threats are the behaviors and actions that we are witnessing in orbit today.”

— Dr. Peter Martinez, executive director of the Secure World Foundation

For example, the draft treaty against the placement of weapons in space (PPWT), proposed by China and Russia in 2008 and 2014, didn’t include direct descent ASAT weapons launched from the ground.

Given the difficulties in reaching international agreements between states, especially due to geopolitical tensions and interests, the role of private companies has become increasingly important.

As mentioned by Audrey M. Schaffer: “Private companies are also sharing that same space environment, they too have a vast interest in avoiding the deliberate creation of space debris.”


A historical background

During the Cold War, with the space race and nuclear arms race, the development of anti-satellite and anti-missile defense systems also saw rapid proliferation. Since the launch of the first Soviet satellite, the US began researching and testing military solutions for taking down enemy satellites, and so did the URSS.

The United States mainly focused on the development of air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBM), like the Bold Orion, High Virgo, and the ASM-135, the first US air-launched missile to successfully destroy a satellite. The USA also developed surface-to-air missiles, direct-energy weapons, and considered the use of high-altitude nuclear explosions.

An F-15 Eagle aircraft releasing an ASM-135 ASAT missile during a test on Sep. 13, 1985. Credits: US Air Force/Paul E. Reynolds
An F-15 Eagle aircraft releasing an ASM-135 ASAT missile during a test on Sep. 13, 1985. Credits: US Air Force/Paul E. Reynolds

The URSS instead focused for many years on the development of orbital anti-satellite interceptors. In the 1960s the URSS started working on the Istrebitel Sputnikov (IS) program, which continued until 1970, with the first successful test which achieved 32 hits. The tests resumed in 1976, as a response to the development of the US Space Shuttle, and in 1983 Yuri Andropov definitively ended all IS testing.


Latest tests

The URSS (and the Russian Federation) then focused on the development of air-launched missiles like the USA. Russia conducted its latest anti-satellite test in November 2021, destroying the Kosmos 1408 satellite.

The last US ASAT mission was conducted in 2008 when the US Navy destroyed the USA-193 spy satellite using a ship-fired RIM-161 missile above the Pacific Ocean.

In January 2007, China conducted its first successful ASAT test, launching a SC-19 missile that destroyed the FY-1C weather satellite. In March 2019, India conducted an ASAT test named Mission Shakti, becoming the fourth nation to test its anti-satellite missile capabilities.

Lift off of the Indian PDV Mk-II anti-ballistic missile during an ASAT test in 2019. Credits: PIB India
Lift off of the Indian PDV Mk-II anti-ballistic missile during an ASAT test in 2019. Credits: PIB India

About the Space Economy Summit

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Economist Impact’s Space Economy Summit serves as a crucial platform to connect the space industry with mainstream sectors.

This event showcases the latest developments and opportunities for growth in the space economy, and provide a platform to discuss how the industry can develop sustainably.


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Francesco Sebastiano Moro

Francesco Sebastiano Moro

Aerospace engineering student at University of Padua, passionate of space and aerospace sector.

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