The UN wants to curb anti-satellite missile tests

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also presented challenges to space diplomacy. At the UN meeting, several diplomats expressed their support for the Ukrainians in their statements. The Russian delegate always reminded the Chair that comments should focus on the issues at hand. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is different now, and Russia has a different delegate. It’s possible they’re trying to be tougher and end talks,” said Victoria Samson, director of the Washington office of the Secure World Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in Broomfield, Colorado, and a speaker at the UN meeting.

Despite this clash of perspectives, ongoing work to develop non-binding norms – such as the agreement not to destroy satellites in orbit – could offer a way forward. “I think that opens the door. We are currently working on norms, rules and principles, but we could have a legally binding instrument in the future,” says Azcárate Ortega.

To achieve broad consensus, such norms focus on behaviors, not skills. For example, countries with ballistic missiles and missile defense systems could do this develop the technology for a rocket that could destroy spacecraft. But what matters to the UN process is not whether a nation has such technology, but whether it actually uses it to create dangerous debris in orbit.

While anti-satellite missiles pose a major threat, delegates also raised concerns about other potential weapons. For example, space systems are vulnerable to electronic and cyber weapons, as the conflict in Ukraine has shown. The US, Russia and China are researching technology for ground-launched lasers that could blind or damage a satellite’s sensors.

Furthermore, a dual-purpose technology, such as a robotic arm used to service spacecraft or remove debris from orbit, could in principle be repurposed as a weapon against a competitor’s spacecraft. And dual-use spacecraft that provide communications or imaging during the war, including government and commercial spacecraft deployed in the Ukraine conflict, may also become military targets.

In such situations, these spacecraft can appear dangerous to people on the ground – depending on how they are deployed. “These include satellites used for targeting weapons: GPS, for example. If you’re fighting a military that uses GPS for precision warfare, then technically those GPS satellites pose a space threat to you,” says Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy researcher at the University of Leicester in the UK and speaker at the space meeting – Threats to Earth.

To avoid misunderstandings that can escalate tensions, it’s important for nations to be clear about their plans for a particular spacecraft or technology so other governments don’t assume the worst, says Jessica West, a senior researcher at Project Plowshares Based in Waterloo, Ontario, who attended the first UN meeting. “Several solutions are proposed and the first is transparency. Many states point to the need for coordination, the need to get consent when engaging in an activity that could impact another object,” she says.

But international diplomats are certainly tired after the many back-to-back arms control meetings this year, says West. These include the June meeting in Vienna on the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty and the August NPT Review Conference in New York, which ended in failure when Russia opposed the final document.

Nonetheless, the UN space threat meeting will set the stage for the next meeting in January and could provide impetus to find solutions to other long-standing problems, Bowen suggests, like creating clear rules for managing space travel and establishing no-go zones nearby critical spacecraft and ensuring nations are more transparent — and quicker — when reporting information about objects launched into space to the UN Record. “These discussions are still very much about identifying common problems, so solutions are still a long way off,” he says. “These things have been talked about for a long time. I’m ready to see some details. I’m tired of hearing the mantra: “We need standards. Yes, keep it up then.”

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