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Satellite company urges US to stop blowing up spacecraft

GPS III Satellite, the newest generation of GPS satellites. (U.S. Air Force/Released)
April 15, 2022

Planet, a satellite company founded “with the mission to image the Earth every day and make change visible, accessible, and actionable,” urged the United States government this week to stop blowing up spacecraft over concerns that the destruction is having a negative impact on a “healthy space ecosystem.”

In an open letter to the U.S. government, Planet co-founders Will Marshall and Robbie Schingler argued that anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) “threaten operations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), jeopardize astronauts’ safety, and risk destroying satellites that provide critical services to humanity.”

According to Quartz, militaries will often test ASATs by shooting down spacecraft, leaving the pieces to float into other satellites’ paths. Planet relies on hundreds of Earth-observation satellites to accomplish its mission, which the company claims is being hindered by ASATs-created debris.

“There is no such thing as a responsible kinetic ASAT. As the NASA scientist Dr. Don Kessler forewarned, such debris generating events can cause a runaway cascade of orbital space debris collisions that jeopardize space activities of all actors for generations,” Planet’s letter asserted.

Planet highlighted a recent Russian ASAT test, which created over 1,500 pieces of debris “that will remain in orbit creating congestion and threatening safe operations in LEO for years to come.”

The company argued that Russia’s destructive test is part of an international pattern that has lasted for more than a decade. Planet said China, India and the United States have all taken part in this “unfortunate trend.”

“The amount of debris created from these intentional events rivals the number of satellites in LEO,” the letter stated. “We want to see these actions prohibited before this risk of collision escalates.”

In December last year, Vice President Kamala Harris called for an end to all ASAT tests that create debris.

“Without clear norms for the responsible use of space, we face real threats to our national and global security,” Harris said.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks echoed the vice presidents remarks, saying that the Defense Department “would like to see all nations agree to refrain from anti-satellite weapons testing that creates debris, which pollutes the space environment, risks damaging space objects and threatens the lives of current and future space explorers.”

“Protecting the space environment is of utmost importance to humanity’s short-term and long-term viability in space and requires action across several fronts. Increasingly, international bodies, including the World Economic Forum, the Outer Space Institute, and the Secure World Foundation, are calling attention to the long-term future of space as a sustainable environment for operations and recognizing that deliberately- and irresponsibly-created space debris negates the collective efforts of hundreds of responsible space actors who work to minimize the creation of debris as part of their normal operations,” Planet’s letter stated. “Commercial companies must be responsible stewards of our space environment and nations must do more to prevent the reckless creation of space debris.”

“We strongly urge the United States Government to lead an international effort to prohibit the use of debris-creating anti-satellite weapons,” the letter concluded.