Published: 20 May 2019 Author: Stefan Talmon DOI: 10.17176/20220113-144103-0
On 27 March 2019, India conducted “Mission Shakti”, an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test. The country fired a surface-to-space ballistic missile at its own 740kg Microsat-R earth observation satellite at an altitude of 283km in low earth orbit (LEO). The missile hit the orbiting satellite which was the size of a small car destroying both the object and target with the force of the impact. The use of this kinetic-kill technique creates a cloud of debris that can threaten other satellites, spacecraft and the International Space Station (ISS). The United States National Air and Space Agency (NASA) estimated that Mission Shakti created at least 400 pieces of debris of which 24 were thrown into orbits with apogees above the ISS. The U.S. space agency also warned that the risk of debris colliding with the ISS had risen by 44 percent as a result of the Indian ASAT test. According to a preliminary assessment of the German Aerospace Centre of the 74 debris objects created by the test and for which orbital data was available, some 10 would remain in orbit for more than three months, some considerably longer. India, on the other hand, stated: “The test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris. Whatever debris that is generated will decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks.”
The successful test made India the fourth country capable of destroying an enemy satellite after the United States, Russia and China.
Germany used the 58th session of the Legal Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) which was held in Vienna from 1 to 12 April 2019 to comment on the Indian ASAT test. During the opening of the session on 1 April 2019, the German delegation stated:
“As Germany assumes the Presidency of the UN Security Council as of this very day, we are compelled to voice our serious concern about any threats to peace and security in outer space, and reiterate that it is in the very best interest of humankind to use outer space peacefully and in a safe and responsible manner.
In this regards, we would like to underline the importance of implementing the Transparency and Confidence Building Measures in Outer Space activities as proposed in 2013 by the Group of Governmental Experts and refraining from any uses of outer space that threaten its long-term sustainability.”
Eight days later, during the general exchange of views on legal mechanisms relating to space debris mitigation and remediation measures, the German delegation were more specific, stating:
“It is appropriate to recall that any intentional destruction of an on-orbit spacecraft generating additional space debris poses a major safety threat to space activities conducted for the benefit and in the interest of all humankind and must therefore be avoided. Due to the energy converted during the impact of anti-satellite weapons even in low earth orbits any resulting space debris is uncontrollable and increases collision risks including in higher orbits.
Therefore, generally accepted international standards such as the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of COPUOS and the IADC [Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee] as well as the Recommendations of the Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence Building Measures in Outer Space activities urge responsible space actors to refrain from the intentional destruction of space objects. Like already done in other forums, Germany calls for a legally binding prohibition of the intentional destruction of space objects resulting in the generation of long-lasting debris, including in situations of armed conflict. […]
In order to keep outer space operationally safe for use not only today but also for future generations, we need not only internationally accepted guidelines prohibiting the intentional destruction of space objects resulting in the generation of long lasting debris, keeping in mind that the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries, but sooner or later we will need to conduct active debris removal missions. These will inevitably raise several legal issues such as responsibility and liability. […].”
Germany was concerned that other States with ballistic missile and hit-to-kill technologies could decide to join the club with a similar show of force. While not directly criticizing India for the ASAT test, the German statements were implicitly aimed at doing just that. Germany intimated that by conducting the test, India had not been acting in “a safe and responsible manner”, and was not behaving as a “responsible space actor”.
However, Germany was also clear that India was not acting in violation of international law. The Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, referred to in the German statement, were endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2007. Guideline 4 provides:
“Recognizing that an increased risk of collision could pose a threat to space operations, the intentional destruction of any on-orbit spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stages or other harmful activities that generate long-lived debris should be avoided.
When intentional break-ups are necessary, they should be conducted at sufficiently low altitudes to limit the orbital lifetime of resulting fragments.”
These “voluntary guidelines” are not legally binding under international law. ASAT tests causing debris do not violate the Outer Space Treaty or other international agreements. In particular, Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty does not generally prohibit all activities or experiments in outer space which could cause potentially harmful interference with activities of other State Parties in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space. The testing of surface-to-space missiles also does not violate the principle that outer space is to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. It is exactly for these reasons that Germany was calling for “a legally binding prohibition of the intentional destruction of space objects resulting in the generation of long-lasting debris, including in situations of armed conflict.” At the moment, the German call for a legally binding ban on debris-creating weapons seems rather unrealistic as States with hit-to-kill technologies will probably want to maximize their military freedom to act in space, especially during warfare.
Category: Air and space law