US calls for moratorium on anti-satellite missiles, new space norms

"I am pleased to announce that as of today, the United States commits not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing," announced Vice President Kamala Harris.

 US Vice President Kamala Harris visits Vandenberg Space Force Base in Lompoc, California, US, April 18, 2022. (photo credit: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)
US Vice President Kamala Harris visits Vandenberg Space Force Base in Lompoc, California, US, April 18, 2022.
(photo credit: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)

The United States has committed to not testing direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile testing and to establish new international norms for space security, Vice President Kamala Harris announced on Monday at a press briefing at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

"I am pleased to announce that as of today, the United States commits not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing," said Harris, "We are the first nation to make such a commitment. And today, on behalf of the United States of America, I call on all nations to join us."

Anti-satellite missiles are developed to destroy critical enemy satellites, such as those that provide telecommunications, global positioning and other defense functions. 

Harris explained that ASAT missiles were dangerous for the space environment, creating fast-moving debris fields that could threaten astronauts and vital satellite networks. She called tests of the weapon "irresponsible."

Artist's concept of an anti-satellite missile (ASAT) after launch from an F-15 Eagle aircraft (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Artist's concept of an anti-satellite missile (ASAT) after launch from an F-15 Eagle aircraft (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

"We are taking a major step forward in this effort – a step that specifically addresses the problem of destructive missile tests in space, like the one Russia took in November," said Harris, adding that "in 2007, China conducted a similar test."

"When China and Russia destroyed their respective satellites, it generated thousands of pieces of debris – debris that will now orbit our Earth for years, if not decades," Harris explained. 

The vice president said that a contingent of the Space Force had identified 1,660 pieces of debris created by the Russian ASAT test and that there were still over 2,800 pieces of debris in space from China's test.

A White House statement advocated for new norms to be established for responsible behavior in space, giving the Artemis Accords as an example of a "set of principles that will guide civil use of space."

The accords were drafted by NASA in 2020 to promote best practices of civil exploration of outer space and "to create a safe and transparent environment which facilitates exploration, science, and commercial activities for all of humanity to enjoy," NASA wrote on its website. 

Israel became the first country to sign the accords in January, NASA reported at the time. 

"Israel already has demonstrated its commitment to Artemis with the contribution of the AstroRad radiation protection vest on Artemis I, scheduled to launch this spring,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson. “Today’s signing of the Artemis Accords will only serve to strengthen the long-standing US-Israeli relationship in the area of space exploration and I look forward to many more years of working together to achieve our common goals for the benefit all of humanity.”

"Since our administration took office, we have doubled — To 18 — the number of nations to sign on [to the Artemis Accords]," said Harris. "As we move forward, we will remain focused on writing new rules of the road to ensure all space activities are conducted in a responsible, peaceful, and sustainable manner."

The White House said that in December, Harris was tasked with developing new national security space norms that would "preserve the security and sustainability of space." The White House noted that this was the first initiative under that mission. 

"Our administration has proposed the largest single increase in our military space capability in our nation’s history," Harris noted. "The United States will continue to be a leader in order to establish, to advance, and demonstrate norms for the responsible and peaceful use of outer space."