Future Tense

Space Is Becoming Both a Battlefield and a Garbage Dump

A garbage pile containing old cars and mechanical equipment.
Imagine this in orbit around the Earth. Evan Demicoli/Unsplash

Last week, the International Space Station had a “conjunction event,” meaning it was in danger of getting hit by space debris. As it turns out, that debris was traceable to the breakup of an old Russian satellite, which Russia had destroyed on purpose in a test of a destructive weapon. In the 2013 film Gravity, nearly the exact same event occurs, leading to the destruction of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock’s spaceship. While the real-world ISS astronauts are currently safe, the recent space drama has illuminated how lacking current space policy is and what a (literal) mess space is becoming.

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On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Laura Grego, a former astrophysicist who’s now a fellow at the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, about how space is simultaneously becoming a battlefield and a garbage landfill, and what kinds of policies might be able to preserve space as a safe place for all earthlings. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Seth Stevenson: When Russia destroys this satellite, is it a warning to the United States or other countries that if we want to, we could knock your satellites out of this sky and shut down your communications?

Laura Grego: Yeah. Space is important to militaries, and especially to the United States military, which sends soldiers and equipment and things all over the world and needs to be able to communicate with them. That provides the backbone for U.S. military functioning. When you’re thinking about space weapons and anti-satellite weapons, it’s almost always targeting the kinds of satellites which support war making on the ground. Navigation, communications, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance.

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Russia is certainly capable of this technologically, but demonstrating it is different. They’re saying, “We can target your satellites. They don’t have safe harbor.”

How do you shoot down a satellite? Is it hard to do?

It’s pretty challenging. It takes a lot of technical finesse, which is maybe one of the other motivations for demonstrating this because it shows you’ve mastered a challenging technology. What you do is you launch a kill vehicle, a little weapon, on a missile from the ground. It sends it straight up towards where you think the satellite is going to be. And it releases a little something that can maneuver itself in a high-speed collision with that satellite. And those satellites are going really fast, 7 kilometers a second, 30 times a speed of a jet. It takes a lot of technical know-how to be able to maneuver in a high-speed collision like that. It’s been described as hitting a bullet with a bullet.

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Is shooting down satellites something that happens a lot?

Shooting down satellites is not something that happens a lot. There has been a lot of restraint for all of our time in space and all of the difficult relationships of the cold war and the new competitions that are happening. In fact, for decades, there was almost a taboo, it was like, “We’re not doing this.” So in terms of big satellite destructions, there’s only been a handful in the last 15 years.

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I think China did it, India did it and the U.S. has done it. Right?

Yep, and now Russia. When China tested this in 2007, there was a lot of public outcry, and China never did the same thing again. When India and the United States tested their systems, they were at low enough altitudes above the Earth’s surface that the debris produced fell out relatively quickly.

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Is there any reason Russia is doing this now?

I have no particular insight into Russian thinking. But of course we’re in the middle of an arms race and maybe it’s a slow walk or an amble, or maybe it’s speeding up to a jog. But between the United States and Russia and China, all three countries are modernizing their nuclear arsenals to the tune of billions of dollars. And we’re not talking to each other the way that we used to. Arms control treaties are being left by the wayside.

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This is, I think, a symptom of a larger dynamic of trying to win technologically against the other countries and engaging in all sorts of techniques to not only show you have great offensive weapons, but that you can target another country’s defenses.

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We have arms control treaties here on Earth, but they don’t seem to be slowing down the arms race that much. As for up in space, there’s been a United Nation’s Outer Space Treaty since 1967. Among other things, it asserts that space belongs to all of humanity, and it prohibits stationing nuclear weapons in orbit or on the moon.

I used to be guilty of repeating things like “it’s the Wild West out in space” and that there’s “no laws,” and that’s not true. There is law. Thankfully, we haven’t had to apply it, we haven’t had a space war yet. But I think any big hostilities you’re going to see between the major countries will involve something happening in space.

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These conflicts over what the rules of engagement should be in space have been brewing for a long time. I’m thinking of the Strategic Defense Initiative where Ronald Reagan was pushing the idea of space based defensive weapons that could stop a nuclear first strike, right?

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Yeah. The SDI or Star Wars Initiative time in Reagan’s tenure was really a crescendo point in this conversation. The vision was that the U.S. would put missile defense interceptors or missile defense systems in space, which could stop any Soviet missile attack with nuclear weapons. And it would make nuclear weapons obsolete.

When you say “missile defense could make nuclear weapons obsolete,” I’m all for it. Human beings cannot co-exist with nuclear weapons indefinitely. But the problem with building defenses and not having an agreement about it or not thinking it through, is that what it generally does is it inspires or incentivizes your adversary to just build more offensive missiles. You build a little defense, they build more offense, then I build more defense, they build more offense and look, we’re in an arms race.

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There are ongoing talks in the U.N. about creating some new space rules. Spacefaring countries like China and Russia are in favor of a new space treaty that would further limit space-based weaponry, but they seem to be at odds with the United States over the scope of new regulations.

From all the conversations I’ve had, Russia and China still are very, very concerned about the U.S. thinking about pursuing space-based missile defenses. It still animates a lot of their anxieties, their concerns. It certainly is something that’s central to the treaty that they’ve advanced, which would outlaw space-based missile defense interceptors.

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You could see from our adversaries’ perspective why they’d be worried if we had some system that could shoot down all their nuclear missiles, well, we could launch a first strike with complete impunity. We would have no concern about retribution.

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That is the concern. If you have an impenetrable defense, then you are not vulnerable to retaliation. If Russia or China believed that the United States believed it could conduct a first strike without risking retaliation, it’s intolerable. To have one party in this mutual assured destruction—

No longer of assured of being destroyed.

Right. So what does that say? What might they do if they didn’t feel vulnerable to retaliation? A lot of this is thinking of ways to convince a perhaps unconvinced United States that it truly is still vulnerable.

Amid all this military posturing, where countries are blowing up their satellites to show that they can, it seems like there’s a negative externality, which is all the debris that gets created. How big a problem is all that space debris?

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Space debris is a huge problem. The destruction of one large satellite could essentially double the amount of debris in space. And if you do it in certain types of orbits, it could stay in space for decades—essentially forever. Keeping space working well and predictably requires everybody rowing in the same direction and not making big mistakes or doing tests like this, which might prove a political point, but which endanger everybody else’s use of space.

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What’s interesting is this is happening at the same time as a big expansion of commercial space activity, the launch of these Starlink satellites and other initiatives to build space-based internet services, which would help rural users and remote users have access to the internet. But you can’t do that, you can’t invest all this money and you can’t imagine that a constellation of tens of thousands of satellites can remain working well in an environment where you’re also blowing up satellites.

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Even if these things are well intended, if the satellites are going to have good uses, just the fact putting more things up there means there’s more potential for collisions. There was once an accidental collision between two satellites that created a lot of space junk, right?

Right. We have had a pretty relatively slow-growing amount of satellites over the past decades. But this is completely different. Hundreds are being put up every year, and we’re imagining thousands in there. That’s a lot of things to keep track of. We don’t have experience with that. We don’t have the infrastructure to do what people call “space traffic management,” which is knowing where everything is, where it’s going to be, what it might hit.

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I read about something called Kessler syndrome, where you have this chain reaction of debris causing more debris causing more debris until space is completely impassible, no spaceship could go through space. Is that something we should be worried about?

Kessler syndrome is very real. It’s a cascade effect, but one that could actually be pretty slow. Without being really deliberate about it, I don’t think you’re going to make space absolutely impassable. What you’re going to do is make space much more hazardous and more expensive. Someplace where you might put satellites, but perhaps you wouldn’t put human beings.

If we think about spaces as a big ocean, and we’re starting to pollute our own shores, are we at the early stages of another big human-caused problem like plastic in the ocean or like climate change where we’re creating this huge future problem and we’re just watching it happen?

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That’s part of the dynamic. It’s not exactly any one person’s responsibility, it’s a shared resource. And we have this enormous burst of activity that we’re unprepared to regulate and monitor, which we think might be beneficial, but we don’t have all of the tools to make sure it’s done safely. We need to catch up with technology. We don’t have all of the laws and strategies and approaches to work on the military parts of space. We also don’t have all the regulations to work on the environmental aspects, what people call space sustainability, how do you create space that you can use for generations ahead? How do we make sure that we don’t pollute it? We have a lot of work to do.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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