Open letter: UN to ban tests of kinetic anti-satellite weapons

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Dozens of experts are calling on the United Nations to ban tests of kinetic anti-satellite weapons. Given the rapidly growing number of artificial satellites in orbit, the danger from space debris and debris is increasing for all forms of space use, they write in an open letter from the Outer Space Institute. In order to promote a sustainable use of space, new approaches are necessary and an important step would be to globally outlaw tests of kinetic anti-satellite missiles. The UN General Assembly should therefore put the issue on the agenda.

Anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) are designed to destroy or at least neutralize satellites in orbit. There are different approaches, one is kinetic attacks, in which projectiles are fired at high speed at satellites from the ground or from space. Because of the high energies that occur in such collisions, debris would often be thrown on very eccentric orbits that graze several satellite planes, it says in the letter. If even a piece of debris hits another satellite after a kinetic anti-satellite weapon has been tested, there is a risk of massive consequences and a snowball effect that could ultimately clear entire orbits. According to this, tests in which satellites only pass but are not hit should not be prohibited.

As a concrete example, the undersigned refer to an Indian test from 2019. As part of the “Mission Shakti”, India was the fourth nation to destroy a satellite in earth orbit with a rocket. Hundreds of debris were created and were thrown into extreme orbits, an illustration in the letter shows. Although the destroyed satellite was traveling at a height of only 280 kilometers, debris reached the orbits of the space stations ISS and Tiangong as well as various planned and already implemented mega-constellations such as Starlink and OneWeb. At the time, NASA criticized the test with harsh words and said it was a “terrible, terrible thing”.

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The open letter was signed, among others, by the former ESA boss Jan Wörner, Australia’s ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the Nobel Prize winners Michel Mayor, John Polanyi and John Mather, as well as the astronauts Chris Hadfield, Robert Thirsk, Chiaki Mukai and Dafydd Williams. You are also pointing out that several states have already declared that such tests should be avoided. At the same time, no state has spoken out in favor of considering such tests as appropriate or legal. There is already a certain momentum that must now be used. Meanwhile, the risk of such tests is increasing rapidly in view of the growing number of satellites.

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