Russia's ASAT Test and the Development of Space Law

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Articles of War

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On November 15, Russia launched a direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile that deliberately struck Cosmos-1408, one of its own satellites that had become inoperable years ago. Massing at about 2,000 kilograms and with an original orbital altitude of about 480 kilometers, Cosmos-1408 was blown into thousands of pieces, about 1,500 of which will be trackable by ground stations. The debris field is an expanding cloud that continues to orbit the Earth both above and below the original altitude of Cosmos-1408, putting the International Space Station (ISS) at risk. (Regarding the original risk to the ISS, see Jonathan McDowell’s visualization here).

While the safety of the ISS and its crew were of immediate concern, debris from the ASAT test could pose additional dangers. Any pieces colliding with satellites could generate more out-of-control debris that would further degrade the orbital environment and increase the risks to satellites and crewed vehicles. Given these possibilities, did Russia act lawfully when conducting the test? What does Space Law have to say about ASAT testing?