Mark Kelly
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) said he did not consider Russia's ASAT capabilities tested last year to be something "that I would be too worried about." Credit: McCain Institute webcast

WASHINGTON — A senator and former astronaut said he did not expect Russia to perform another test of an antisatellite weapon because of the debris that posed a risk to that country’s own satellites as well as others.

At a panel session of the McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum April 30, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), chair of the emerging threats subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he did not consider ASATs a threat to either government or commercial satellites in the near term even during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“They did an antisatellite test recently, but that test was just very well choreographed and produced to get a certain outcome,” he said, referencing the November 2021 ASAT test that destroyed the Cosmos 1408 satellite. “I wouldn’t say right now the Russians in particular have an antisatellite capability that I would be too worried about.”

Kelly, a former NASA astronaut who flew on four shuttle missions, recalled on one flight in 2008 having to maneuver both the shuttle and the International Space Station to avoid debris from a 2007 Chinese ASAT test. The experience of both that test and last year’s ASAT demonstration, he suggested, makes it unlikely Russia will perform similar destructive ASAT tests in the foreseeable future.

“I don’t expect this to be a routine thing because they have to deal with this debris field as well,” he said of Russia, citing its limited space situational awareness capabilities. “The Russians in particular don’t have a very good sense of where stuff is.”

“I don’t expect them to routinely be shooting their own stuff down. They wanted to demonstrate they could do it, probably to send us a message,” he said.

Vice President Kamala Harris announced April 18 that the United States would not perform similar destructive direct-ascent ASAT tests, calling on other nations to make that pledge. Another panelist, though, criticized that ban.

“We can’t unilaterally tie our hands, because along with that call for a ban was also a unilateral decision to stop ASAT testing,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and House Science Committee. His comments echoed criticism from other Republican members of Congress.

“Not all antisatellite testing is equal,” he argued, calling Russian and Chinese tests “reckless” for the amount of debris they created. “The way the United States does it, the last one we did created less than 100” pieces of debris.

Waltz appeared to be referring to the 2008 ASAT demonstration by the United States that destroyed the USA 193 satellite. That test created 174 pieces of tracked debris, the last of which reentered 1.7 years later, according to data compiled by the Secure World Foundation.

Kelly warned that growing debris populations could create a cascade, commonly called the Kessler Syndrome, that could make some orbits unusable. However, he was skeptical of proposals to address that problem by removing debris.

“There’s some companies looking at doing that. I just don’t see that that’s a reasonable thing to do,” he said, without elaborating on why orbital debris removal is not feasible.

He argued that natural decay from atmospheric drag could resolve much of the debris problem. However, many models predict that the amount of debris outside of very low orbits will continue to grow for decades because of breakups and collisions, even if no new objects were launched.

Space station future

The panel took place amid renewed claims that Russia was planning to leave the International Space Station partnership. A Bloomberg article April 30, citing Russian state media, stated that Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, had said Russia had made a decision about its future on the ISS but would not publicly disclose it.

However, one Russian-language article from the TASS news service, which reported on Rogozin’s comments, added that he said Russia would continue to participate on the station to at least 2024, the date it had previously committed to. Russia would provide its partners with one year’s notice of its plans to exit the partnership, he said.

In a separate TASS article April 29, Rogozin suggested no decision had been made, saying any decision on Russia’s future participation on the ISS “will depend to a great extent on the developing situation both in Russia and around it.”

Asked about that latest development, Kelly said he talks regularly with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy on the issue. “Ending that partnership is going to be a challenging thing,” he said, because of Russia’s role in ISS operations. “It would be hard for either country to operate the ISS without the other country.”

He said it may be possible to replace one Russian contribution, the ability to reboost the station’s orbit, with modified cargo spacecraft. “It would take some time to build that capability in.”

Kelly predicted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will eventually affect the ISS partnership as the U.S. looks for additional ways to sanction Russia. “Eventually we will have done everything and there will be one thing left, and that’s this partnership in space on ISS with them,” he said.

Waltz endorsed continuing ISS operations, citing the benefits of research performed there. “We don’t even know yet what we’re going to be able to discover up there,” he said, expressing his support for privatizing ISS operations and eventually replacing the station with commercial space stations. “If we don’t, the Chinese will be the only entity with their own space station, which they are building right now in low Earth orbit, and that’s not acceptable.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...