The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. calls for an end to destructive satellite tests in space

The move comes months after Russia blew up a dead satellite, littering Earth orbit with a massive debris field

Vice President Harris delivers remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House on March 29. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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The United States will no longer conduct destructive tests of satellites, Vice President Harris announced Monday, and called on other nations to agree to a set of rules governing responsible behavior in space as Earth orbit becomes increasingly congested with dangerous debris.

The announcement, made during a visit to Vandenberg Air Force Base on Monday, came five months after Russia blew up a dead satellite with a missile, creating a massive debris field that will stay in orbit for years.

At the time, Harris, who serves as chair of the National Space Council, condemned Russia, saying that “by blasting debris across space, this irresponsible act endangered the satellites of other nations, as well as astronauts in the International Space Station.” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called it “reckless and dangerous” and said he was “outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action.”

The Pentagon and intelligence agencies have many satellites in orbit that carry out a range of national security operations, from spying to missile defense, communications and guiding precision munitions. Russia, China and others have demonstrated that those satellites are vulnerable to attack — another sign of how modern warfare would play out in space as well as on the ground.

In 2007, China blew up a satellite in an act that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris, according to the Secure World Foundation, a think tank. In 2019, India also destroyed a satellite in a move that was condemned by the international community. The United States has conducted destructive anti-satellites tests as well, in 1985, 1986 and 2008, according to the Secure World Foundation.

The United States would become the first nation to pledge to no longer conduct those tests, Harris said, as she called on other nations to make a similar pledge.

“It is clear there is strong interest among our international partners to develop these norms,” she said Monday. “We must write the new rules of the road, and we will lead by example.”

She added that the tests “are reckless, and they are irresponsible. These tests also put in danger so much of what we do in space.”

Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, said that “making that commitment and calling out other countries to follow through is a significant step forward.”

The proclamation would “put pressure” on China, Russia and other potential adversaries, he said, “to either follow suit, or be seen as the ones that are potentially causing future debris incidents that are going to harm everyone.”

Even if satellite destruction becomes a thing of the past, that doesn’t mean interference with satellites will go away. There are plenty of other ways to interfere with satellites, from cyberattacks to jamming, that don’t create a mess in space.

“This is not forestalling the military’s ability to deny or degrade other countries from using space in a conflict,” Weeden said.

The United States is also working with allies to join the “Artemis Accords,” a series of bilateral agreements that would establish rules for the peaceful use of space and govern behavior on the surface of the moon. The rules would allow private companies to extract lunar resources, create safety zones to prevent conflict, and ensure that countries act transparently about their plans in space and share their scientific discoveries.