China sprayed space with 3,000 pieces of junk. US military officials want rules to stop that sort of thing

Satellite shootdown test still causing operational and diplomatic hassles after 14 years


Tired of space junk and weapons, US military commanders presented to Congress on Wednesday an argument to create a framework for rules-based order in space.

One reason for their call was that in January 2007 China demonstrated its ability to destroy a satellite in space when it shot a ballistic missile at one of its own inactive weather satellites.

According to US Space Force Lieutenant General Stephen Whiting, at a House Foreign Affairs and House Armed Services joint subcommittee hearing, the resulting spray of junk comprised 3,000 trackable objects, 10 per cent of all space debris the US tracks. He sternly referred to China's test as "very irresponsible."

Outrage swiftly followed Beijing's 2007 test and China announced it will not do further anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) in the wake of the incident. But it didn't need to: the debris was already a menace in orbit around 850km above Earth.

It's not just the space debris that worries officials. China's grappling arm satellite, Shijian-17, has in the past displayed strange behaviour and Russia's Kosmos 2542 has presented copy-cat behaviour to a US satellite that makes officials believe it could be a weapon.

The US has many space assets it would like to protect, among them the Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation. The Council for Foreign Relations called space-based satellites "the Achilles' heel of America's more technologically advanced military."

While there are international agreements already in place that ban weapons of mass destruction in space, there is nothing to stop anti-satellite tests or ground-based lasers taking a shot at a sat.

At the congressional hearing, politicians couldn't resist offering vivid scenarios. "Space is in danger of becoming the wild, wild west where every satellite, astronaut, cosmonaut or taikonaut has to defend itself," said Jim Cooper, US Representative [D] Tennessee, claiming that experts were giving up on law-abiding rules-based space and settling for suggestion and hint-based space.

Cooper pleaded:

Can we at least agree on space traffic management, on the size of safety zones around satellite or capsules, to ban debris? At least from ASATS or to have compatible docking latches? There must be a consensus somewhere on Earth from the sensible.

In written testimony, Whiting said [PDF] the following:

Unfortunately, potential adversaries have taken note of the enormous civil and military benefits the United States and other nations are now deriving from the peaceful use of outer space and they are developing capabilities aimed at denying access to and freedom of action in space. We now acknowledge we can no longer take this vital national interest for granted; it must be secured.

Without national borders in space, there is no official division separating forces. Whiting argued that the ability to operate at any location or distance from another nation's spacecraft created a first attack "use it or lose it" environment that only serves to escalate and destabilize.

He added:

This risk could be mitigated by shared understandings among space actors, including through voluntary, non-legally binding best practices, standards, and norms of responsible behavior.

Questions were raised about whether any such treaty would be enforceable.

Department of State Senior Bureau Official Bruce Turner answered:

So much depends on the narrative, who is doing the right thing and who is not doing the right thing and that can still be useful to put diplomatic and public pressure on malign actors.

Earlier in the assembly, the Department of State's Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Jonathan Moore stated:

We do expect [China] to follow norms and standards. We have been clear with them about that. As has been referred to in different context. The results have not been consistent nor satisfactory.

In a separate press briefing the same day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the US is tracking China's Long March 5-B rocket as it makes an uncontrolled descent to Earth.

Psaki said:

The United States is committed to addressing the risks of growing congestion due to space debris and growing activity in space. We want to work with the international community to promote leadership and responsible space behaviors.

When asked if the White House would enforce China paying some sort of compensation for potential damage as required by the UN Space Liability Convention, Psaki deftly avoided commitment.

"Hopefully that's not the outcome that we are working through," said Psaki. ®

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