When Elephants Fight in Outer Space

There is an insightful African proverb that says, “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” The same can be said for when states launch kinetic anti-satellite tests that produce harmful clouds of debris. Not only do these destructive tests—such as the Russian Federation’s missile test on November 15—undermine a sustainable space environment for all, but as the commercial space economy expands, officials are concerned about overcrowding in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Orbital debris—or simply space junk—poses a serious, chronic, and indiscriminate threat to all spacefaring and aspiring spacefaring states. How?

When spacecraft collide with other objects conducting routine space activity or are intentionally destroyed via anti-satellite tests, this creates orbital debris and risks creating a cascading chain reaction of collisions and debris propagation. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) explains that “collisions with orbital debris can pit or damage spacecraft in the best case scenario and cause catastrophic failures in the worst.” Collisional cascading, also known as the Kessler Syndrome, is a dangerous phenomenon because it renders orbits less accessible for all states to reap the scientific, technological, and economic benefits. For these reasons, NASA maintains that the top threat to spacecraft, satellites, and astronauts is orbital debris.

Harm from Kinetic Anti-satellite Tests

Russia’s latest direct-ascent anti-satellite missile test unleashed a debris field of approximately 1,500 trackable pieces when it destroyed Cosmos-1408, a defunct Soviet satellite. NASA reported that the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station took emergency measures as the station passed “through or near the cloud every 90 minutes” for several hours. From this event alone, the risk of contributing to a Kessler Syndrome event increased by five percent according to France. This is alarming for all states, explains former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, because “even a fleck of paint can cause critical damage to infrastructure in space” assuming it’s traveling at an average of 10 km per second.

According to the U.S. nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, orbital debris in LEO—orbits with an altitude of 2,000 kilometers or less—can travel “30 times faster than a commercial jet aircraft. At these speeds, pieces of debris larger than 1 cm (half an inch) can severely damage or destroy a satellite, and it is not possible to shield effectively against debris of this size.” For these reasons, NASA administrator Bill Nelson and current NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg declared Russia’s missile test “reckless.” The test also provoked the ire of various governments including Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, and the United States. Russia is not alone in launching anti-satellite weapons, however; historically the United States has conducted destructive anti-satellite tests against its own satellites, most recently in 2008, as did India in 2019 with Mission Shakti and China in 2007 with a 1-ton weather satellite orbiting in LEO.

Space history is a human story of customs and contradictions with its genesis in the influential 1967 Outer Space Treaty. It’s important to keep space history in mind when evaluating the environmental risks facing the international community and strategizing how to develop multilateral frameworks for cooperation. This is especially pivotal as more commercial actors are launching mega-constellation commercial satellites.

Sustainability and Commercial Space Exploration

Helping lead the call to action is Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, who is apprehensive of orbital slots becoming congested and disproportionately dominated by entrepreneurs.

In an interview at NewSpace Europe, Aschbacher took particular aim at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company, which is preparing to grow its Starlink satellite internet service up to $30 billion. “You have people like Elon Musk, just launching constellations and satellites and throwing Teslas up into orbit. We need to set common rules. Colonisation, or just doing things in a completely deregulated space, is a concern,” Aschbacher said.

Apart from the safety and environmental concerns from overcrowding, geopolitical tensions are also orbiting this complex problem set. Several multilateral mechanisms are in place, like the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines developed by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee is another international governmental forum devoted to the study and mitigation of space debris. Despite these collective best efforts, states are still conducting destructive anti-satellite weapons tests.

Mitigating Orbital Debris

Whether this is indicative of a need for an international regulator like the United Nations or the International Telecommunication Union to help manage the launch of satellites, as some officials are suggesting, is unclear. Why? Because before policymakers can discuss potential solutions, such as empowering an international authority to regulate orbital congestion, there needs to be a deeper understanding of this Gordian knot: geopolitics are simultaneously ameliorating and exacerbating efforts to address the catastrophic effects of space debris.

When states decide not to observe norms of behavior for outer space activities and debris mitigation, this comes at a high cost—not only threatening the burgeoning commercial space economy and aims for scientific exploration, but also weakening the prosperity and security of space for future generations. Failing to understand the delicate subsystems of this problem undermines the ability of policymakers to effectively design and implement solutions. As a starting point, states should recall that when elephants fight in space, it is humankind that suffers.

Zhanna L. Malekos Smith, JD, is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Strategic Technologies Program and the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and an assistant professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s) and not those of CSIS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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