International Space Station dodges debris from Russian anti-satellite test

Space debris is a major physical security concern for space missions. In November 2021, Russia launched an anti-satellite test against one of its space vehicles in orbit resulting in a large cloud of micro meteorite debris. The international space station has since performed two evasive maneuvers in order to avoid damage from the debris field. This move sparked international condemnation from the space community at large with the Republic of Korea, Germany, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and the United Kingdom all committing to not perform destructive anti satellite tests in the future. Similar tests have been conducted in the past using nondestructive payloads to show proof of concept as well as testing on a much smaller scale.

It is not clear yet whether Russia intends to continue with ASAT tests in the future, or if they will follow the commitment of the rest of the space community. It is clear however that Russia was able to achieve two objectives. First, they were able to test their ASAT systems before such testing could be prohibited at an international level, giving them a strategic advantage over other international players. Second, such a public exposition of this new capability has granted them significant strength moving forward in the regulatory process surrounding ASATs.

From a security perspective, this can be viewed as a denial of service attack, where access to testing is being denied to competing space agencies due to the international commitment opposing such tests. By intentionally creating a larger than necessary cloud of debris, Russia has ensured that competing international players will be unable to test their own ASAT capabilities. In this scenario, being the first to achieve successful ASAT tests blocks others from testing their own capabilities. This view is supported by the strong international responses in opposition to these tests. The potential downside to this approach is that now ASAT testing will be conducted in more secretive ways that doesn’t necessarily preclude a competing power from successfully developing and testing the capability. This bold move by the Russian space agency may do more damage by causing them to lose out on vital information on adversaries capabilities that might have otherwise been known.

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