Space Council meeting
Members of the National Space Council discussed rules and norms of behavior, and criticized Russia’s ASAT test, at a Dec. 1 meeting. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

WASHINGTON — Administration officials used a National Space Council meeting to issue a new round of criticism of Russia’s antisatellite weapon test and call for a halt to future ASAT tests that create debris.

The White House held the Dec. 1 meeting of the council, which took place at the United States Institute of Peace, to unveil a document outlining a “space priorities framework” and to hold discussions on the topics of space sustainability, climate and STEM education. The meeting was the first by the council during the Biden Administration.

The discussion of space sustainability in particular included condemnations of the Nov. 15 Russian ASAT test that has created at least 1,500 pieces of trackable debris and disrupted operations of the International Space Station. Some satellites, including those in SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, have had to maneuver to avoid close approaches to debris since the test.

Vice President Kamala Harris, chair of the space council, mentioned the test in her opening address. “By blasting debris across space, this irresponsible act endangered the satellites of other nations as well as astronauts in the International Space Station,” she said. “We must demand responsibility from all spacefaring nations.”

Harris and other speakers used the test as evidence of the need for norms of behavior and rules for safe space operations. “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 said.

Later in the meeting, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks weighed in on the test. “We’ve seen significant amounts of hazardous debris created that could still threaten lives of those space travelers who are in low Earth orbit,” she said. “Such a display of deliberate disregard for safety, security, stability and sustainability in space is one to be condemned and underscores the urgency of acting in defense of developing shared norms and having long-term sustainability of outer space.”

She added that, from the perspective of the Defense Department, “we would like to see all nations agree to refrain from antisatellite weapons testing that creates debris.”

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also weighed in on “irresponsible and dangerous debris-generating weapons testing” in space. “If we were to allow that to continue, we risk allowing military activities in space to undermine the peaceful use of space by all.”

Council members did not discuss any kind of punitive actions against Russia for the test, but instead focused on promoting rules and norms. That includes, said Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, “widespread implementation” of 21 guidelines for long-term sustainability for space developed by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Space as well as U.S. cosponsorship of a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly to create an open-ended working group for discussion of rules and norms of behavior.

At the end of that panel discussion at the meeting, Harris directed the Commerce Department to accelerate its civil space traffic management activities. The Departments of Defense and State, along with the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Council, were tasked to develop a “national security perspective” on international rules and norms. The space council staff, she added, will develop “an overarching plan to synchronize and coordinate these rules and norms as we go forward.”

One mechanism for advancing rules and norms could be the Artemis Accords, which outline principles for sustainable space exploration. Thirteen countries have signed the accords, most recently Poland.

“From here, we must work to expand the number of signatories on the Artemis Accords,” Harris said, adding that in recent discussions, the presidents of France and Mexico each expressed an intention to join. She directed NASA and the State Department to expand participation in the accords.

In an interview after the council meeting, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the agency has been talking with many countries about joining the Artemis Accords but didn’t have any information about whether any countries are about to sign.

He added he was skeptical calls for a ban on destructive ASAT testing would win wide adoption. “You’re not going to get Russia and China to sign up to it. Let’s be realistic,” he said.

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...