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Space Café Canada by Dr. Jessica West Recap: Anti-satellite weapon testing and the crisis of space debris

During the fourth Space Café Canada event, host Jessica West of Project Ploughshares sat down with astronomer Aaron Boley and legal expert Michael Byers, Co-Directors of the Outer Space Institute at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

 Dr. Aaron Boley holds the Canada Research Chair in Planetary Astronomy at UBC. His research explores a wide range of topics, including planetary dynamics, astrophysical discs, meteoritics, artificial satellites, space sustainability, and space policy.  Aaron was previously a NASA Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Florida and a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Zurich. 

Dr. Michael Byers is well known in international security and law circles. His research career has spanned the use of armed force, climate change, the oceans, the Arctic, and most recently space. Michael currently holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC.

How is the nature of the debris risk in outer space changing in the context of mega-constellations?

We are witnessing a major change in the orbital environment that is unlike anything we have ever seen before. Since 2019 the satellite population in low Earth orbit has increased from roughly 3,000 satellites to over 6,000 satellites, with thousands more on the way. Single satellite operators are now talking about launching networks of satellites numbering in the 100,000 range. The latest paper by Aaron and Michael published in Nature Scientific Reports examines the tremendous costs these satellite systems are poised to have on the environment, both in space, and here on Earth.

We are fundamentally changing the orbital environment. And we don’t know how to manage this environment now, let alone in the face of such a drastic change. But the effects will be felt on Earth as well. What we put into space, especially in low Earth orbit, comes back down and burns up in the atmosphere. These satellites are mostly composed of aluminum. This is going to change the chemistry of the upper atmosphere.

“This is a real-life experiment in geo-engineering.”

How does the challenges posed by the changing space environment collide with the risks of anti-satellite weapons?

The research by Aaron and Michael emphasizes the consequences that a single actor, through a single action – namely a kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) test – can have on the safety of thousands of other objects in orbit. Looking at the impact of India’s 2019 ASAT test, which was a very low altitude (280 km), low debris generating event, make this clear. Debris was sent on elliptical orbits reaching as high as 2,000 km, all of them crossing the circular orbit of the International Space Station (ISS). Mapping this debris onto the future mega-constellations environment shows it going through orbital shells full of satellites also.

The problem is so serious because every single one of these potential knock-on collisions would create additional debris, compounding the problem exponentially. Even very small debris that we can’t identify and track can cause serious damage to objects in orbit. The obvious conclusion from this research is that

“There is no such thing as a responsible, debris-generating event in orbit.”

This research led the Outer Space Institute to draft an Open International Letter calling for a ban on debris-generating ASAT tests. What’s involved in this effort?

The type of ASAT tests that happened in the past, that states have been able to get away with, just won’t work going forward. It would be “insanely dangerous” to have even a low altitude debris-generating debris event such as the Indian ASAT test in the type of mega-constellation environment that we expect to see as soon as 2025.

The letter was crafted to make this point. It was also intended to support an initiative being led by the United Kingdom within the United Nations General Assembly to identify and agree to norms of responsible behaviour in outer space. In addition to being signed by influential people from around the world, including from Prime Ministers and Nobel Laureates, it has been signed by space experts from around the world—including, importantly, experts from the Global South. And it was sent to every single national mission at the United Nations.

Russia conducted a kinetic ASAT test shortly after this call for a ban was published. What has your response been?

This event has made the need for a ban even more pressing. But it also provides an opportune time for the Russian government to come to table at the UN and support this initiative. As co-directors of the OSI, we will be reaching out to the Russian Foreign Ministry on this topic. Russia is a sophisticated country diplomatically, scientifically, and technically; they were, after all, the first to reach space in 1957.

“Russia could lead on this issue, and we’re calling on them to do so.”

What do we know about the environmental impact of Russia’s ASAT test?

 We know that a ground-based missile struck a defunct Soviet-era satellite on the 15th of November. It generated lots of debris, with the latest estimates from U.S. Space Command being 1,500 pieces of trackable debris, roughly 10cm or larger in size. Immediately, we must remember that lots of lethal but smaller and untrackable debris would have been created as well. And the test took place at 480 km: that is very problematic. Higher altitude tests inflict more, longer-term damage because atmospheric drag does not remove debris from orbit as efficiently.

The debris from this event has affected all of low Earth orbit. It affects both space stations, as well as major satellite constellations. All of this debris will eventually decay through the orbital altitudes of the space stations, over roughly a decade, if not longer.

How has the international community responded to this latest test?

There has been unanimous condemnation from Western countries. China has not yet taken a public position, but an awful lot of Chinese space assets have been put at risk as a result of this test, as indeed have Russian ones. There has thus far been no condemnation from any states in the Global South, but that may come, as may others. It’s possible that the “G77 plus China” will issue a statement in the future.

But you can’t cry over spilt milk. Instead, we should learn from this. And the Russian government should learn from this. There is an important historical precedent with regards to ASAT testing that shows us the way forward. When the U.S. military decided to test a nuclear device as an ASAT weapon in 1962, it detonated the Starfish Prime device 400 km above the Pacific Ocean. The device worked far more effectively than anyone had anticipated: it took out six operational satellites. And within a year, the United States and the Soviet Union came together and led the negotiation of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty which prohibited nuclear tests in space.

“Now, if that could happen at the height of the Cold War, why can’t we get a kinetic ASAT test ban today? The answer is we can.”

Last month’s Russian ASAT test could be the event that pushes a ban over the finish line. So let’s look forward, not backward, and get this done.

We already have a number of international commitments to limit the intentional creation of long-lived or harmful debris. Why is are these commitments insufficient? Why is there a push for a no-debris rule?

The idea that you can have a debris-generating event in space and conduct it in a responsible way that only produces short-lived debris and isn’t harmful, is complete fiction. We saw that with the Indian ASAT test. These are explosive events – high-velocity impacts – and you can’t control the debris that they generate: the material goes absolutely everywhere.

“Even if we could agree on definitions of “long-lived” or “harmful debris,” you can’t control the debris itself. The only way to avoid harmful debris is to avoid the creation of debris all together.”

A kinetic ASAT test ban seems like a no-brainer. What are the obstacles?

There are no obstacles. The countries with a kinetic ASAT capability have already demonstrated it. The big risk for them going forward is that other countries might develop this capability and want to demonstrate it. That’s why we need a global ban, to prevent the proliferation of these kinds of tests.

Have we heard from the commercial space industry on this?

One of the great things about the International Open Letter is that we were able to engage with the global satellite industry. A couple of CEOs have signed on. But more importantly, our research shows that the debris risk from these tests is directly in line with satellites operated by SpaceX, Iridium, Planet, and by the many satellite constellations that are planned: all are now at greater risk because of the Russian test. We’ve been able to share our research with them, and some of them are now voicing concerns. It’s also important to remember that Russia launches satellites for some of these companies, and that those companies will be greatly concerned about the recent ASAT test. In other words, the commercial satellite industry has a stake, and a voice, and dollars that it can vote with on these matters. This can add to pressure on governments to conform.

What about ballistic missile defence? Is that an obstacle to a kinetic ASAT test ban?

It’s not an obstacle to a ban. States might develop an anti-missile capability for different reasons, and to ask them not to develop it is beyond the scope of the proposed kinetic ASAT test ban. These systems can be developed and tested without generating debris.

So what is the value of a kinetic ASAT test ban for arms control?

This is low-hanging fruit. There are of course lots of other issues that must be considered at some point – the impact of cyber-attacks on satellites, for example. And clearly Russia and China have been pushing for a more comprehensive ban on the deployment and use of space weapons. This is a worthwhile initiative. But we can grab this low hanging fruit immediately, and take it off the table, without precluding more comprehensive negotiations, and as a first step toward that process.

What can people in the audience do; how can we help?

The Open International Letter is still open for signatures: please sign it and share it. Share it with young people especially and use it to educate them. Contact your foreign minister and urge them to be engaged on this issue at the UN General Assembly. And do the same thing with space industry.

If Elon Musk tells the US Secretary of State to get moving on this issue, that’s going to have more effect than all of us combined. So, whether it’s large companies or small companies, whether it’s research institutes, whether it’s civil society,

“the more that we talk about this as something that’s absolutely essential and relatively easy to achieve, the more likely it is to happen.”

Please go here to sign the International Open Letter on Kinetic ASAT Testing.

And you can read a preliminary discussion paper by Aaron Boley and Michael Byers on the impact of the Russia ASAT test here.

To listen to Space Café Canada session, you can watch the full program here:

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