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UN Adopts Resolution Against Anti-Satellite Tests to Prevent More Space Debris

A U.S.-led campaign has been encouraging other nations to ban dangerous anti-satellite tests, both to protect space-based assets and to prevent more space junk.

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Chief of Space Operations at U.S. Space Force General John Raymond testified before a hearing in July on Russia’s use of an anti-satellite weapon.
Chief of Space Operations at U.S. Space Force General John Raymond testified before a hearing in July on Russia’s use of an anti-satellite weapon.
Photo: Shawn Thew (AP)

Yesterday, an overwhelming majority of countries voted in favor of a United Nations resolution against tests of anti-satellite (ASAT) missile systems, with Russia and China voting against its adoption.

The draft resolution was introduced by the Biden administration after the U.S. adopted a self-imposed ban on the ASAT tests in April and then encouraged other nations to follow suit. On Wednesday, 155 countries voted in favor of the resolution, while nine voted against it, including Russia, China, Cuba, Syria, and Iran, according to a U.N. press release.

The U.S., Russia, China and India (which abstained from the vote) have all conducted anti-satellite tests in the past. But Russia’s latest test produced a cloud of debris that threatened orbiting spacecraft, prompting the U.S. to take action.

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In November 2021, Russia destroyed a defunct Soviet-era satellite in low Earth orbit, producing thousands of pieces of debris. The newly introduced space junk forced astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station to seek shelter as shards of the blown-up satellite threatened the orbital lab. About two months later, the debris also threatened a Chinese satellite, coming as close as 48 feet (14.5 meters) to the Tsinghua science satellite.

The U.S. was clearly not a fan, fearing for its own assets in space. NASA condemned Russia’s ASAT missile test, calling it “reckless and dangerous.” In April, the White House referred to the tests as “one of the most pressing threats to the security and sustainability of space,” in a published statement announcing that the U.S. would no longer conduct anti-missile tests.

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Vice President Kamala Harris led the charge against ASAT tests, calling on other countries to adopt a ban on them. “Whether a nation is spacefaring or not, we believe this will benefit everyone, just as space benefits everyone,” Harris said during a speech at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Up until the U.N. vote, Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Switzerland, France, and the United Kingdom had all made similar pledges.

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The U.N. resolution is not a global ban against ASAT tests, but rather a shared agreement among member states. “Among its terms, the Assembly called on all States not to conduct such tests and to continue discussions to develop further practical steps and contribute to legally binding instruments on the prevention of an arms race in outer space,” the U.N. wrote in its statement.

The recent adoption of the resolution can be taken as a sign of the times—an indication that space will become a contested frontier as nations deliver their precious assets to orbit.

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