A Call For The United States Government To Lead International Efforts To Prohibit The Use Of Debris-Creating Anti-Satellite Weapons (ASATs)

Fig. 4: Estimated volume of space occupied by debris fragments during first day following intercept, with color depicting the relative likelihood of a fragment occupying that portion of space. (Credit: COMSPOC/CSSI volumetric analysis, with rendering by AGI, an Ansys Company.)

An open letter by Planet co-founders, Will Marshall and Robbie Schingler

For the last ten years, Planet has raised concerns about the impact destructive anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) have on a healthy space ecosystem. ASATs threaten operations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), jeopardize astronauts’ safety, and risk destroying satellites that provide critical services to humanity. They are irresponsible. Today, we want to shed light on this important issue and urge the United States Government to lead an international effort to prohibit the use of debris-creating anti-satellite weapons (ASATs).

There is no such thing as a responsible kinetic ASAT. As the NASA scientist Dr. Don Kessler forewarned, such debris generating events can cause a runaway cascade of orbital space debris collisions that jeopardize space activities of all actors for generations. Russia’s ASAT test in November 2021 highlights the problems brought by these actions. To date, the international community is tracking over 1,500 pieces of debris created by it – debris that will remain in orbit creating congestion and threatening safe operations in LEO for years to come. This latest ASAT test continues an unfortunate trend over the past 15 years: with kinetic ASAT tests from China (2007), the United States (2008), India (2019) and now Russia (2021). The amount of debris created from these intentional events rivals the number of satellites in LEO. We want to see these actions prohibited before this risk of collision escalates.

During the December 1, 2021 National Space Council meeting, Vice President Harris and other members of the National Space Council called for a halt to future debris-creating ASAT tests. As the Vice President said, “Without clear norms for the responsible use of space, we face real threats to our national and global security.” At this same meeting, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks added that the Department of Defense “would like to see all nations agree to refrain from anti-satellite weapons testing that creates debris, which pollutes the space environment, risks damaging space objects and threatens the lives of current and future space explorers.” As the level of socioeconomic dependence on the orbital commons increases, so does the urgency to act now in order to protect it.

Over the last decade, commercial space companies have transformed the space sector and extended the economic sphere of influence to near-Earth space. They provide critical services such as Earth observation data that addresses global issues like the climate crisis, and communications data that provide internet access for the planet. The United States must lead by example and protect the space environment to allow the continued safe utilization of near-Earth space.

Protecting the space environment is of utmost importance to humanity’s short-term and long-term viability in space and requires action across several fronts. Increasingly, international bodies, including the World Economic Forum, the Outer Space Institute, and the Secure World Foundation, are calling attention to the long-term future of space as a sustainable environment for operations and recognizing that deliberately- and irresponsibly-created space debris negates the collective efforts of hundreds of responsible space actors who work to minimize the creation of debris as part of their normal operations. Commercial companies must be responsible stewards of our space environment and nations must do more to prevent the reckless creation of space debris.

We strongly urge the United States Government to lead an international effort to prohibit the use of debris-creating anti-satellite weapons.