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2022 Is the Year for a Space Summit

A disturbing Russian weapons test is yet more proof that new rules are needed.

By , a fellow in the Rethinking Diplomacy Program at Duke University’s Center for International and Global Studies, and , a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University and a senior fellow for Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Russia's Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft, carrying people to the International Space Station, blasts off at the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 17, 2017.
Russia's Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft, carrying people to the International Space Station, blasts off at the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 17, 2017. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

If most of us don’t think much about what happens above our heads in space, the Russian military just blew up that complacency. On Nov. 15, Russia conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite test that blew Kosmos-1408, a derelict Russian spy satellite, into more than 1,500 pieces of space debris. These pieces of satellite, in turn, have the potential to “generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris,” according to U.S. Space Command. The successful test of Moscow’s new anti-satellite weapons system is a major escalation of military operations in space, launching a new category of weapons technology not previously used by Russia. Moscow has demonstrated its improved capability to destroy satellites from the ground without warning.

The new weapon, known as PL-19 Nudol, has been in development for years by Almaz-Antey, a Russian defense contractor under U.S. and European Union sanctions introduced after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. The weapon has two key capabilities: It can operate as an anti-ballistic missile system in Earth’s upper atmosphere but can also reach space to destroy satellites in low Earth orbit. Capable of being deployed from a mobile launch platform, the missile carries a so-called kinetic kill vehicle that intercepts the satellite target. The resulting collision is sufficient to smash the satellite into pieces even without a conventional explosive payload.

By creating a new field of dangerous space debris in low Earth orbit, the Russian test also poses a threat to civilian and military satellites as well as other orbital structures, such as the International Space Station (ISS). Within hours of the incident, government agencies and astrophysicists warned that new debris could collide with spacecraft large and small for decades to come. The hazard to other space assets was only increased by targeting Kosmos-1408: At almost 5,000 pounds, it’s a giant by satellite standards. Its orbit—now the orbit of a dispersing cloud of debris—is less than 60 miles above the ISS and less than 60 miles below several commercial constellations, including SpaceX’s Starlink fleet. Collision risks to ongoing space operations were immediate, endangering U.S., Russian, and German personnel aboard the ISS as well as Chinese personnel aboard Beijing’s Tiangong space station.

If most of us don’t think much about what happens above our heads in space, the Russian military just blew up that complacency. On Nov. 15, Russia conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite test that blew Kosmos-1408, a derelict Russian spy satellite, into more than 1,500 pieces of space debris. These pieces of satellite, in turn, have the potential to “generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris,” according to U.S. Space Command. The successful test of Moscow’s new anti-satellite weapons system is a major escalation of military operations in space, launching a new category of weapons technology not previously used by Russia. Moscow has demonstrated its improved capability to destroy satellites from the ground without warning.

The new weapon, known as PL-19 Nudol, has been in development for years by Almaz-Antey, a Russian defense contractor under U.S. and European Union sanctions introduced after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. The weapon has two key capabilities: It can operate as an anti-ballistic missile system in Earth’s upper atmosphere but can also reach space to destroy satellites in low Earth orbit. Capable of being deployed from a mobile launch platform, the missile carries a so-called kinetic kill vehicle that intercepts the satellite target. The resulting collision is sufficient to smash the satellite into pieces even without a conventional explosive payload.

By creating a new field of dangerous space debris in low Earth orbit, the Russian test also poses a threat to civilian and military satellites as well as other orbital structures, such as the International Space Station (ISS). Within hours of the incident, government agencies and astrophysicists warned that new debris could collide with spacecraft large and small for decades to come. The hazard to other space assets was only increased by targeting Kosmos-1408: At almost 5,000 pounds, it’s a giant by satellite standards. Its orbit—now the orbit of a dispersing cloud of debris—is less than 60 miles above the ISS and less than 60 miles below several commercial constellations, including SpaceX’s Starlink fleet. Collision risks to ongoing space operations were immediate, endangering U.S., Russian, and German personnel aboard the ISS as well as Chinese personnel aboard Beijing’s Tiangong space station.

Especially alarming was the absence of any notice given by the Kremlin to the rest of the world in advance of the test. Apparently, not even Russia’s own personnel aboard the ISS received any warning. “This is pitiful that the Russians would do this,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson told the New York Times. Immediately after the satellite was destroyed, NASA told ISS personnel to conduct shelter-in-place drills to prepare for a potential collision. NASA implemented further procedures to duck and dodge danger based on a calculation that the ISS would pass “through or near the cloud every 90 minutes.” Likewise, Russia’s test debris’ close proximity to SpaceX’s satellites requires them to take evasive action.

As space becomes more intensely used, geopolitical tensions can escalate on many fronts.

The event is a call to action on two fronts: ensuring the safe use of near-Earth orbit and dealing with the dangerous escalation of anti-satellite technology.

The U.S. State Department condemned the test as reckless, but Washington has not yet taken or proposed any further action. This dithering is unfortunate, given the test is part of a wider complex of intimidation by Moscow, including military brinksmanship in Ukraine and the weaponization of energy, cyber, and migration issues. As U.S. President Joe Biden engages with Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, Moscow’s ongoing destabilization of space must also be on the agenda.

Bilateral U.S.-Russian engagement aside, the establishment of regulatory norms for space activities is a global challenge requiring a multilateral approach. So far, U.S. diplomacy seems stuck in neutral. Russia and China, meanwhile, continue to try to exempt themselves from military constraints in space. Some experts have surmised that the timing of the Russian space weapon test could be an effort to demonstrate a new strategic capability before the establishment of norms could limit future testing.

Washington, working with allies and partners, should seize the Russian test as an opportunity to galvanize and shape international opinion on space sustainability going forward. Leveraging the United States’ extensive convening power—as demonstrated by the Biden administration’s recent Summit for Democracy—Washington should call for a global summit for space security in 2022.

Pressure is already building on the administration. Recognizing the dual danger demonstrated by Russia’s anti-satellite test, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators called on the U.S. National Space Council to initiate international discussions on a set of norms for “responsible behavior in space.” On Dec. 1, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris called for “rules and norms on safety and security, on transparency and cooperation, to include military, commercial, and civil space activity” on the same day the White House unveiled a new U.S. Space Priorities Framework. That document, however, did not define any new international mechanisms to achieve those objectives beyond boilerplate language about “cooperation” with “allies and partners” and the need to engage “with strategic competitors in order to enhance stability in outer space.” These cut-and-paste phrases usually mean no real action is forthcoming. There is little indication the administration has sufficiently prioritized the coming decade’s growing space security challenges.

Fortunately, recent progress on another transnational threat—climate change—offers valuable insight on how to proceed. Action was possible when citizens, scientists, activist groups, and governments around the world came together to combine compelling evidence with powerful public diplomacy. The combination of proof of harm, public awareness, and global diplomacy led to progress. The same formula and format—a global summit—can be used to address the urgent need to establish global norms for space’s use.

Just as one country’s unilateral actions can destroy the safe and peaceful use of the Earth’s orbit, cooperation on common rules and norms on the beneficial use of space is the only rational path. As space becomes more intensely used, geopolitical tensions can escalate on many fronts: This week, Beijing lodged a United Nations complaint against SpaceX, claiming its space station needed to avoid Starlink spacecraft twice this year.

The United States has the convening power, strategic vision, and sense of responsibility to rally nations and multilateral institutions to deal with global issues before they reach crisis levels. It would be disastrous if the world’s major space powers—Russia, China, and the United States—got caught in such a spiral of misjudgment and distrust that they saw preemptive military escalation as their only option. The right consequence from the Russian test is for the Biden administration to move establishing space norms to the top of its international agenda. A good place to start would be a global summit for space security in 2022.

W. Robert Pearson is a fellow in the Rethinking Diplomacy Program at Duke University’s Center for International and Global Studies, a former director general of the U.S. Foreign Service, and a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey.

Benjamin L. Schmitt is a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University, a senior fellow for Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis, and a “Rethinking Diplomacy” fellow at the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies.

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