Space: Did Russia have the right to destroy one of its old satellites with a missile?

the essential Russia fired a missile last Monday to destroy its Tselina-D, an inactive satellite, in orbit since 1982. The explosion generated a “cloud of debris” that has long threatened the space station, its crew and a swarm of other satellites. Did this operation, condemned by many countries, respect international law?

“Space raiders have an overwhelming responsibility in generating debris that pollutes and puts our astronauts and satellites at risk.” It is in these terms that the Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, denounced this Tuesday 000 November the destruction by Russia of an old satellite of 1967. Using a missile, Moscow confessed to having this Monday 15 November, fired from Earth on one of its devices, inactive for several years.

According to Washington, the explosion generated a “cloud” of debris potentially dangerous for the international space station, its astronauts, and a cloud of satellites orbiting the planet: hypocritical accusations according to Russia, which affirms for its part that the operation was “a success”.

To read also: Alert on board the ISS: astronauts forced to take shelter because of space debris

“If Russia destroyed this satellite, it is perhaps because it was perhaps going to adopt an abnormal behavior, estimates Alain Benssoussan, lawyer specializing in new technologies and space law, questioned by La Dépêche du Midi. It could also be that this satellite no longer had sufficient levels of protection with regard to possible attacks. “

Saturation and sanctions

Did Russia, however, have the right to destroy one of its old satellites? In this area, space law is categorical: the responsibility of a State is only engaged if space debris causes human or material damage. “Classical space law, which is based on a treaty that was signed in 803, applies in the outer zone which is around the Earth and which does not belong to anyone, explains Me Benssoussan. this space. “

Près de 5 000 satellites circulent actuellement autour de la Terre.
Nearly 5 000 satellites are currently circulating around the Earth. ESA

Clearly, no sanction can be applied to a State held responsible for the formation of space debris, as long as it does not cause any damage.

In this area, however, space law could evolve. “Until now, space debris has not been as much of a problem. The likelihood of it creating damage was very low, says the lawyer. With the saturation of outer space that we know today. hui, and the swarm of private and public satellites that revolve around the Earth, it is clear that space debris poses a real problem “, continues the specialist, who fears many disputes on the question in the years to come.

La Terre est entourée de débris spatiaux.
Earth is surrounded by space debris. ESA

In 1982, the European Space Agency identified tens of thousands of space debris circulating around the Earth. In total, 5 satellites are currently circulating around our planet, but only 2 000 of them are active.

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