Russia has tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile against a live satellite target, the third test of its kind by a country since 2007. The test, and the resulting orbital debris, have focused international attention on the rapidly declining sustainability of near-Earth space and the need to constrain this kind of weapons testing.
On November 15, a Russian PL19 Nudol interceptor missile launched in northern Russia struck the now-defunct Soviet-era COSMOS 1408 satellite at an approximate altitude of 480 kilometers (about 300 miles). The intercept has generated a massive debris field in low-Earth orbit (LEO); according to U.S. Space Command, “more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris” have already been detected, and “hundreds of thousands of smaller [fragments]” are likely to surface.
The test represents a serious challenge to space sustainability and immediately increases the collision risk that other human-made objects in LEO face, including human-inhabited objects like the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong space station. This test underscores the pressing need to develop new international norms and rules of behavior in space. It should further galvanize international efforts to ban this sort of weapons testing, which has significant negative consequences for the space environment near Earth.
What Happened in Russia’s Test?
This test is the first of its kind involving a direct-ascent ASAT missile by Russia against a live satellite target. The Soviet Union carried out destructive anti-satellite tests against live satellite targets but did so using weapons placed in orbit. The kind of direct-ascent weapon that was tested this week features interceptor missiles that travel from the Earth’s surface to strike a satellite target passing roughly above the launcher’s location.
Information regarding the Russian test remains limited. The Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed that the test took place in a statement released on November 16.
Russia has tested the PL19 Nudol multiple times from Plesetsk, but until now it had only done so against simulated targets—where no actual satellite was destroyed. This week’s test against a live satellite target confirms that the Nudol interceptor can destroy satellites. The Russian minister of defense even touted the interceptor’s demonstrated precision as “worthy of a goldsmith.”
Unlike some earlier, similar tests in other countries, the test satellite COSMOS 1408 broke up at a greater altitude. As a result, the debris generated after the intercept could end up significantly dispersed, including to higher orbits—where it may linger for years if not decades.
After the Test, Space Collisions Are More Likely
Debris is already a significant problem in critical Earth orbits, including LEO. More than 23,000 orbital debris objects larger than 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) in diameter exist alongside thousands of untracked smaller fragments; these objects travel at immense speeds, averaging 7–8 kilometers (over 6 miles) per second. Space debris can cause serious structural damage—including catastrophic damage—to satellites.
Moreover, as the amount of debris grows and as orbits become more congested, the probability of new collisions increases too. As collisions create new debris, the probability of new collisions further compounds. Over time, the costs of safely and predictably operating in orbit grow considerably, rendering access to space more expensive and eventually infeasible at tolerable costs.
While unintentional on-orbit collisions contribute to the accumulation of debris, intentional debris-creating actions like ASAT tests are particularly egregious sources of orbital pollution. Russia’s direct-ascent ASAT test has significantly contributed to a degraded environment in LEO.
Debris generated by the test will be catalogued by the Eighteenth Space Control Squadron, which is a U.S. Space Force surveillance unit, and other international providers of situational awareness in space, including those in the private sector. Satellites operators will then be able to undertake maneuvers based on this data to mitigate collision risk (provided that their satellites are maneuverable).
Strengthening International Norms in Response
The United States and other like-minded states should propose and pursue a ban on any intentional debris-creating actions in space, including ASAT tests. Destructive ASAT tests undermine the sustainability of Earth’s great commons and pollute already-congested orbits that support human welfare across multiple domains.
Given its overwhelming reliance on access to space for civilian welfare and military operations alike, the United States has a significant interest in leading the norm development process and proscribing certain impermissible acts with legally binding tools. But more broadly, as the number of space-faring states grows in the twenty-first century and as the private sector comes to operate the vast majority of satellites, most actors have a shared interest in secure and sustainable Earth orbits.
The pursuit of multilateral agreements on debris-generating ASAT testing has become bogged down over the divergent approaches by the United States, on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. The U.S. Department of Defense has indicated that it seeks to develop new norms in space, but events like Russia’s latest test emphasize the urgency with which President Joe Biden and his administration need to treat these issues. In the near term, the administration should explore a ban on these tests among the four countries with demonstrated capabilities in this area: China, India, Russia, and the United States.
Finally, while the pursuit of new norms in space is laudable, norm building benefits from consistency. Just hours after Russia’s destructive ASAT test, various elements of the U.S. government, including the U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Department of State, criticized Moscow’s behavior. The commander of U.S. Space Command described the action as “simply irresponsible,” and the State Department spokesperson has called it “dangerous” and a threat to the “long term sustainability of . . . outer space.”
These statements echo the sharp response of former president George W. Bush’s administration to China’s 2007 ASAT test. But former president Donald Trump’s administration largely overlooked India’s 2019 ASAT test, even though the debris it generated long outlasted New Delhi’s optimistic estimates. India is a U.S. partner; China and Russia are U.S. adversaries. And of course, the United States cited terrestrial safety as essential to its own 2008 ASAT demonstration using a modified missile defense interceptor. (The U.S. government did not consider this to be an ASAT test, although it exhibited a new capability for the interceptor missile that was used.)
However, these distinctions undercut norm setting. The United States should make clear that no ASAT testing against live satellites can be considered responsible—regardless of the mass of the target satellite or the altitude of the intercept. The U.S. government should further support a legally binding ban on these kinds of tests and should address concerns in Russia and China about the further weaponization of space.
To ensure that space remains easily accessible to future generations, it is incumbent on the current generation of leaders in the United States and elsewhere to lead the way on setting new norms and rules to bar further tests of this sort, which could irreversibly and irrecoverably pollute critical orbits around Earth.