France joins ASAT testing moratorium

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WASHINGTON — The French government said Nov. 29 it will join the United States and several other countries in a pledge not to conduct anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests that can leave hazardous debris in orbit.

In a statement, France’s foreign and defense ministries jointly announced that the country would not carry out destructive direct-ascent ASAT tests as a step towards a “safe, stable space environment.”

“France has never carried out such tests, which it deems destabilizing and irresponsible,” the government stated. “They have caused a large amount of debris, which may lead to serious consequences for space security and safety, in particular by compromising the integrity of satellites in orbit.”

France is the tenth nation to make such a commitment, which started with an April 2022 announcement by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris as a means towards creating a norm of responsible behavior in space. Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Switzerland and the United Kingdom made similar pledges.

France was also a co-sponsor of a United Nations resolution introduced by the United States in October calling for a similar commitment not to conduct destructive direct-ascent ASAT tests. Members of the U.N. First Committee, which deals with disarmament and international security topics, approved the draft resolution Nov. 1 on a 154-8 vote, with 10 abstentions. China and Russia were among the eight countries voting against it.

The French announcement came a day before the country’s president, Emmanuel Macron, met with Harris at NASA Headquarters. “I thank you, Mr. President, for your commitment, which was announced yesterday, to adopt this norm,” she told Macron, according to a White House transcript the meeting’s opening, public statements.

“Thank you for having launched these very important items,” Macron said of the creation of norms of behavior like the ASAT test ban. “We have crazy players in the space as well, and we have rogue states there, and we have new hybrid attacks.”

During those opening remarks, Harris and Macron largely praised cooperation between the United States and France in space, which has grown in the last year. That included the U.S. joining the French-led Space for Climate Observatory project to use space data for climate change, and France signing the U.S.-led Artemis Accords. The two countries also held a first comprehensive dialogue on space Nov. 10 in Paris on civil and national security space topics.

A readout of the NASA Headquarters meeting released by the White House stated that Harris and Macron “agreed to strengthen U.S.-France space cooperation across civil, commercial, and national security sectors” but did not mention any specific steps along those lines.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Phillipe Baptiste, president of the French space agency CNES, did sign an agreement to fly a French instrument, the Farside Seismic Suite, on a commercial lunar lander through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. NASA had previously announced the instrument would be on a mission awarded to Draper that will land on the moon’s Schrödinger Basin in 2025.

The next milestone in cooperation between France and the United States in space is the launch of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission, a joint mission of NASA and CNES with participation from Canada and the United Kingdom to make the first global survey of the Earth’s surface water. The spacecraft is set to launch on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Dec. 15, NASA announced Nov. 30, a three-day delay to provide additional time for prelaunch processing.