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Russia’s anti-satellite threat tests the laws of space warfare

A Russian official’s threat this week to “attack” Western satellites that help Ukraine highlights an untested area of ​​international law.

A Russian official’s threat to “attack” Western satellites helping Ukraine this week highlights an untested area of ​​international law, raising concerns among space lawyers and industry executives about the safety of objects in orbit.

“Quasi-civilian infrastructure can be a legitimate target for a retaliatory attack,” Konstantin Vorontsov, a senior Foreign Ministry official, told the United Nations, reiterating Moscow’s position that civilian satellites and Western commercial aid to Ukraine’s war effort was “an extremely dangerous trend.”

No country has ever carried out a missile attack on an enemy’s satellite. Such an act during the war in Ukraine could sharply increase tensions between Russia and the United States.

“This threat has pushed us to an edge we’ve never been to before,” said Michelle Hanlon, co-director of the air and space law program at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “There’s always been a sense that this could happen, but no one has ever said that it could happen out loud.”

Ukraine’s military relies heavily on Elon Musk’s SpaceX for broadband Internet transmitted from its network of Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. American companies such as Maxar are capturing images of the war from satellites in orbit. And tens of thousands of communications devices in Ukraine rely on the satellite network of US satellite communications giant Iridium.

“It’s really irresponsible to talk about shooting anything into space for any reason,” Iridium CEO Matt Desch told Reuters. “The space has become quite messy.”

“If someone starts shooting satellites into space, I would imagine that would quickly make space unusable,” Desch said.

Musk and SpaceX did not respond to emailed requests for comment. The billionaire briefly caused alarm this month by saying he could no longer afford to continue funding the Starlink service in Ukraine, a position he quickly reversed.

Under the laws of armed conflict, a Russian attack on a private American company’s satellite could be seen as an act of war to which the US could respond, Hanlon said.

White House spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that any attack on US infrastructure would be met with a response, but did not elaborate.

“The legal aspects of all of this are really murky right now,” said Brian Weeden, a space policy analyst at the Secure World Foundation. “We don’t have any examples of wartime use of force against satellites; there’s really nothing to go on.”

COMPLICATED CALCULATION

Whether a Russian anti-satellite attack would violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, like its ban on placing weapons of mass destruction in space, is debatable, lawyers say. The 1972 Liability Convention, to which Russia is also a signatory, stipulates that countries must pay compensation for any damage caused by their space objects.

Last year, Russia demonstrated a direct ascent anti-satellite missile on one of its old satellites in orbit, using it as a particle. Since Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Western officials and companies have accused Moscow of repeated attempts to hack and intercept satellite Internet signals in the region.

Anti-satellite missiles have been widely condemned by the West and astronomers for creating dangerous orbital debris that endangers critical space infrastructure, from manned space stations to GPS networks that millions of consumer and government platforms depend on. ‘around the world.

The only countries that have conducted direct ascent anti-satellite missile tests are the United States, which last demonstrated an anti-satellite weapon in 2008, China and India.

Vorontsov did not single out any companies in his comments to a UN panel on Wednesday. But SpaceX’s Starlink has stood out as a persistent target for Russia, which has tried to jam the network’s signals during the war, Musk said.

The US military has defended a network of thousands of interconnected satellites circling the Earth like Starlink as resistant to potential anti-satellite attacks that could only target a small part of the network without disabling it entirely.

“It complicates the calculation for the enemy,” Lt. Gen. Philip Garrant, deputy chief of strategy and operations for the US Space Force, told Reuters. “If there are a lot of satellites, they don’t know which one to target.”

SpaceX’s Starlink network consists of about 3,000 satellites, and there are several dozen commercial US imaging satellites looking at Russia and Ukraine.

“Destroying one or two, or even a dozen, won’t have much of an effect,” Weeden said.

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