UN passes resolution to curb space debris from anti-satellite missile tests

China, India and Russia all voted against the measure.

European Space Agency

The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution today asking countries not to conduct direct-ascent anti-satellite tests (ASAT) that create space junk. The US spearheaded the measure after the International Space Station (ISS) had a close call last year with more than 1,500 pieces of debris from a Russian ASAT.

The measure doesn’t ban the development or testing of ASAT systems, but it discourages conducting them in a way that creates space debris. Although since it came from the UN General Assembly and not the Security Council, it isn’t legally binding.

In addition to creating navigational hazards for astronauts, space junk also reflects sunlight to Earth’s surface, interfering with ground-based telescopes. Moreover, researchers expect orbital debris to increase by magnitudes over the next decade as internet-broadcasting mini-satellites, like SpaceX’s Starlink, grow in popularity.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who chairs the White House National Space Council, tweeted praise today for the passage. “Back in April, I announced the United States will not conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests, and I called on other nations to join us. Today, 155 countries voted in favor of a UN resolution, helping establish this as an international norm for space.”

Of the four countries that have conducted ASATs — United States, China, India and Russia — only the US voted in favor today. In addition to Russia and China, nations voting no included Belarus, Bolivia, the Central African Republic, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua and Syria. Nine more nations abstained: India, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Madagascar, Pakistan, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Togo and Zimbabwe.