The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Weapons tests in space could shut down ATMs and ground your next flight

Blowing up satellites creates more hazardous junk in Earth’s orbit

The International Space Station (ISS) photographed by Expedition 56 crew members from a Soyuz spacecraft after undocking, October 4, 2018. (NASA/Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS)

It was a great week for American infrastructure on the ground. It was a terrible one for the global infrastructure surrounding our planet. On Monday, President Biden signed a bill aimed at updating America’s aging bridges, roadways and drinking-water systems, among other projects. The very same day, the Russian military shot a projectile into space, smashing one of its own derelict satellites into a plume of debris and sending astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station scrambling into emergency shelter.

Upon impact, the Kosmos 1408 satellite broke into hundreds of pieces, each traveling faster than five miles per second and quickly spreading to altitudes between 125 and 500 miles above the Earth. At such high speeds, even tiny objects can pack a punch: Per an analogy offered by NASA, a marble-size piece of debris can strike with a force comparable to a bowling ball traveling at 300 mph. This new debris joins functioning satellites in low Earth orbit, whose numbers have rapidly risen in recent years thanks in large part to the private space industry.

If even a small bit of debris from Kosmos 1408 were to hit a satellite, the results could be catastrophic: Fragments of one destroyed spacecraft would strike other objects, creating more potentially destructive debris. Kessler Syndrome — a domino effect in orbit that could yield the loss of a large cross-section of satellites — looms closer to reality than before.

Satellites, including those endangered by the speeding remains of Russia’s antisatellite test (ASAT), are as central to the daily lives of most Americans as electrical lines or sewer systems. Losing our satellites would mean the loss of critical services, from communications and international financial exchanges to disaster relief and climate monitoring, from world-shifting space-based science to everyday activities such as ATM transactions and air travel. By design, we don’t regularly notice satellite infrastructure. But we would certainly notice if it ceased to exist.

We rarely pay attention to infrastructure unless it fails — the lights go out, or a sink backs up, or a pothole wrecks your car’s suspension. Power transmission towers, for example, don’t tend to register as remarkable in modern American landscapes; they have become perching and nesting sites for birds, as convenient a landing spot as any tree. But when a tower breaks, sparking a massive wildfire, such technology becomes horrifyingly visible — as does the destructive potential of its decay. The same holds true in space.

Five myths about the moon

The problem of debris accumulation in orbit reaches back decades. The first satellites to reach orbit in the late 1950s did so alongside the first pieces of space junk, including expended rockets and nose cones. Explosions, accidental collisions and the eventual decay of old and defunct spacecraft have generated an environment that some space policymakers have compared to climate change in scale and severity. The United States and the Soviet Union conducted ASATs during the first decade of the space race. Then, as more countries gained space power in the 21st century, the ASATs started up again: In 2007, China destroyed the drifting Fengyun-1C weather satellite, and in 2008, the United States followed suit with a successful effort to bring down a failing American defense satellite. Both space powers could claim to be acting in good faith to clean up after themselves by removing potentially dangerous junk from orbit. The geopolitical power demonstrated by destroying a satellite was thus shallowly buried in the subtext of supposed nonaggression — in the guise of being a good neighbor, even.

Subtext came to the surface in 2019: After India conducted an ASAT that year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi explicitly identified the test as a demonstration of India’s stature as a significant space power. So far Russian leadership has similarly eschewed any performance of good faith in the wake of Monday’s ASAT. And China has continued to build an arsenal of antisatellite weapons as part of its overall space strategy.

Stated intent does not do much to limit the effects of blowing up a satellite, of course. Debris from the 2007 ASAT, for example, remains aloft nearly 15 years later, periodically endangering spacecraft. Yet the two most recent ASATs nevertheless reflect a troubling shift in space politics. Military technologies have long had a presence in orbit, and less materially destructive efforts to influence satellite operations (such as laser and cyberattacks) have been part of the international defense landscape for years. Still, unambiguous acts of aggression fly in the face of long-standing conventions. The founding of NASA as a civilian agency and the signing of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, crafted in the thick of Cold War hostility, helped establish norms protecting space as a peaceful domain shared by all of humanity. Within the past five years, with the founding of the Space Force and nakedly aggressive ASAT tests, countries have rapidly, intentionally transformed space into a warfaring domain.

Keeping up with the Joneses has long been part of space culture: National space programs once chased milestones in the moon race; today, private companies pursue competing broadband mega constellations. If recent actions signal a shift toward antagonistic norms, we may see further demonstrations by space powers eager to show preparedness for the fight. So far, ASAT-launching nations have targeted only their own satellites, but each test serves as a warning that the next antisatellite weapon could be aimed in a more hostile direction.

Space warfare might not cause visible damage on the ground, but the devastation of the orbital environment would mean a larger, lonelier world than the one currently interconnected by satellites. It would also deepen the inequalities of the Space Age, denying less-powerful nations the opportunity to fairly access a truly global natural resource. War is rarely tidy; fixing a catastrophic mess of destroyed satellites would be all but impossible in the extreme near-Earth environment.

The blunder that could cost the U.S. the new space race

Private and public space industry groups are developing methods to remove large unused objects from orbit, and reusable rockets mean less volatile debris lingering in lower altitudes. Satellites and expendable rockets can be designed for disposal either through controlled reetry into Earth’s atmosphere or in “graveyard orbits.” Right now, however, we rely on the natural environment of near-Earth space to do most of the work of cleaning up fragments of all sizes. Like industrial waste dumped into a river to be carried away and become someone else’s problem, objects in low orbit are drawn into the Earth’s atmosphere by solar energy, atmospheric particles and gravity. There, they typically come apart, with any surviving bits dropping into the ocean or very occasionally crashing onto land.

There is no internationally binding agreement to limit the creation of orbital debris. It’s up to individual organizations to decide whether to work with or against nature to keep space sustainable. The space environment does a good job of cleaning itself at low orbits, but Kessler Syndrome accelerates when the amount of new debris generated surpasses the quantity removed by natural forces. Recent calculations predict that the debris from Kosmos 1408 may stay aloft for a decade or more before the ASAT effluent drifts downstream. Satellites in similar orbits circle the planet once every 90 minutes, so a decade — with thousands of possible close calls — is a long time to keep fingers crossed.

The 2013 film “Gravity” imagined a disaster in which a Russian ASAT starts a chain reaction that destroys all functioning satellites within moments. The film, following two astronauts’ struggle to survive, didn’t even scratch the surface of what would unfold on the ground below. The exact scenario portrayed is physically impossible in our nonfictional universe, but it’s hard not to think of that dramatic scene as an omen. As the task of building back better takes off, citizens of the Space Age might do well to understand the full consequences of infrastructural decay, in the heavens as on Earth.  

Twitter: @orbital_decay

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A new frontier is opening in the search for extraterrestrial life

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