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US pledges not to conduct destructive anti-satellite tests

Space junk created by a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test hit a Russian satellite on Jan. 22, 2013.
Space junk created by a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test hit a Russian satellite on Jan. 22, 2013. (Image credit: Courtesy of Analytical Graphics, Inc.)

The Biden administration just pledged not to conduct destructive anti-satellite missile tests in space, and it wants other nations to follow suit.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris made the announcement today (April 18) at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, saying that the administration wants to establish a good precedent for responsible behavior in space.

Harris' comments came a few months after a Russian anti-satellite test in November 2021 that created a debris cloud so large that the International Space Station had to move out of the way. And that's not the first such incident by any means; in 2013, for example, a Russian satellite was hit by debris spawned six years earlier by a Chinese anti-satellite test. 

"The long-lived debris created by these tests now threaten satellites and other space objects that are vital to all nations' security, economic and scientific interests, and increases risk to astronauts in space," the Office of the Vice President said in an emailed statement on Monday. "Overall, these tests jeopardize the long-term sustainability of outer space and imperil the exploration and use of space by all nations."

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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. (Image credit: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson applauded the move.

"There is no doubt that human spaceflight and the future of the space environment are incompatible with destructive direct-ascent ASAT missile tests," Nelson said in a statement on Tuesday (April 19). 

"Vice President Harris and the Biden Administration's leadership to address these threats and reduce risk is an important step forward to foster a safe, sustainable space environment — now and into the future," he added. "I encourage the world to join us in making this important commitment."

Harris has spoken out before about such testing. At the December 2021 meeting of the National Space Council (NSC), which she chairs, she noted that activity in space is growing and action must be taken to reduce space debris effects as much as possible.

"Without clear norms for the responsible use of space, we stand the real risk of threats to our national and global security," Harris said at the NSC meeting, which was held just weeks after the Russian anti-satellite test. 

"We must establish and expand rules and norms on safety and security, on transparency and cooperation to include military, commercial and civil space activity," she added.

The Biden administration launched a U.S. Space Priorities Framework (opens in new tab) in December that, in part, talks about how the United States plans to pursue its national security interests in space.

"As part of bolstering space mission assurance, the United States will leverage new commercial space capabilities and services to meet national security requirements and will deepen the integration of U.S. national security space capabilities and activities with those of our allies and partners," the framework states. "The United States also will engage diplomatically with strategic competitors in order to enhance stability in outer space," it added.

The administration added that one of the ways by which it engages diplomatically is through the Artemis Accords, a set of international agreements concerning the United States' crewed Artemis moon program modeled after similar ones created for the International Space Station. In March, Romania became the 16th country to join the NASA-led effort for peaceful moon and space exploration.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 11:40 a.m. EDT on April 19 to include NASA Administrator Bill Nelson's statement.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.