As the United States and its allies try to build support for norms of behavior in space, the U.S. Space Force (USSF) wants such standards to address any conduct that would interfere with the maneuver and communications of space systems, a USSF official said on Apr. 8.
“If you’re operating too closely in an aircraft to another aircraft, or from one ship to another, that’s a concern in the air and on the sea, so it would stand to reason that if you operate too closely in space, that that’s a safety concern,” Lt. Gen. Chance “Salty” Saltzman, USSF’s chief of operations, said during the Aerospace Corp.’s Space Policy Show. “Certainly, RF [radio frequency] interference, a lot of RF interference is unintentional. They don’t know, and they don’t realize that their bandwidth leaks out and causes problems for other users, but we can call that out and correct it and put it back in the container. So some of it’s unintentional, but some of it is intentional. Just interfering with freedom of maneuver, anything that’s unsafe. These are not inexpensive capabilities to put on orbit. Anything that jeopardizes the longevity of those satellites is something we’re going to be concerned about and try to keep that behavior responsible.”
On Dec. 7 last year, the United Nations General Assembly passed A/Res/75/36, a resolution sponsored by the United Kingdom and backed by the United States, that encourages United Nations (U.N.) member states “to study existing and potential threats and security risks to space systems, including those arising from actions, activities or systems in outer space or on Earth, characterize actions and activities that could be considered responsible, irresponsible or threatening and their potential impact on international security, and share their ideas on the further development and implementation of norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours and on the reduction of the risks of misunderstanding and miscalculations with respect to outer space.”
The U.N. General Assembly approved the resolution on Dec. 7 on a vote of 164 to 12 with six abstentions. China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Comoros, and Burundi voted “no.”
This fall at the convening of the 76th U.N. General Assembly, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres is to submit a report, which is to include the views of member states on such norms of behavior in order to jump start the effort.
Russia and China have been advancing direct ascent anti-satellite weapons (DA-ASAT), such as the Russian Nudol, and have not been interested in establishing space norms of behavior, but rather in working within the U.N. Committee on Disarmament to protect their DA-ASAT advantage through a treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT).
The U.S. and other Western nations have opposed the PPWT, as they believe the latter is unverifiable and does not touch on terrestrial counter-space systems, such as DA-ASATs and directed energy weapons, which Russia and China are developing. U.S. Space Command has also said that Russia has a co-orbital ASAT, which demonstrated an on-orbit kinetic weapon in 2017 and 2020.
Also last year, the United Kingdom and the U.S. said that Russia had launched the “nesting doll” Cosmos 2542 and 2543 satellites, which could pose a significant danger to low Earth orbit satellites (Defense Daily, Jan. 21). In January last year, Michael Thompson, a respected space tracker, noted that the space surveillance/inspection bird, Cosmos 2542, launched on Nov. 25, 2019 had synchronized its orbit with USA 245–launched in 2013 and one of four multi-billion dollar, classified Lockheed Martin [LMT] KH-11 electro-optical spy satellites under the National Reconnaissance Office’s Keyhole/CRYSTAL program.
In July, U.S. Space Command said that Cosmos 2543 had “injected a new object into orbit” as part of an ASAT capability “inconsistent with the system’s stated mission as an inspector satellite.” Such a hidden capability illustrates why U.S. officials have stated their opposition to the PPWT as unverifiable.
Saltzman said on Apr. 8 that the U.S. intent is to identify, describe, define, and model responsible space behaviors and to encourage U.S. allies and partners to act in accordance with such behaviors.
“The idea is that you build this groundswell of responsible behavior on orbit,” he said. “Quite frankly, nobody benefits more from going back to a benign environment where people operate safely without interference in terms of what’s going on in space than the United States. So, that is the goal, and we believe that once you establish those rules, those tenets of responsible behavior, a couple of things happen. One is it makes it easier to see when somebody is acting irresponsibly. By standardizing effective, responsible behavior, all of a sudden the rotten apple sticks out, and that allows us to hold that nation, that actor, even that company accountable, if they’re not executing procedures or policy that’s consistent with those responsible behaviors. Again, that has that snowball effect. Once you start having consequences to those actions, it pulls people back towards the norms because, quite frankly, it’s cheaper, and it’s the path of least resistance to go along with those norms.”
Nations that damage satellites could be liable under the 1972 Liability Convention to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (Defense Daily, Sept. 22, 2020).
In the only claim under the Liability Convention, the former Soviet Union paid Canada some $2 million after the U.S.S.R.’s nuclear-powered Kosmos 954 reconnaissance satellite crashed in western Canada and scattered radioactive debris on Jan. 24, 1978.