The law of Shooting Satellites

Last weeks’ UN General Assembly vote in favour of a resolution stopping countries conducting direct-ascent anti-satellite tests that create debris, is a step forward to reinforce International norms of Space use, and probably the best we can hope for given the genealogy of Space Laws and the inevitable pace at which changes can be made.

Use of Space requires acceptance of norms by all nations. Standards of behaviour which work on the basis of mutual interest. Contaminating Space with the resultant debris benefits no one – and shooting missiles at your own satellites, generates significant Space debris for everyone.

We were reminded how vulnerable the worlds satellite infrastructure is to attack, with Russia’s test-firing of an anti-satellite weapon in orbit in July 2021 which saw use of a stalking space object, launching a projectile, which passed close by – but didn’t strike, its parent satellite. No Space debris was created.

However, in November 2021 Russia conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile test which hit Cosmos 1408 – and this did create a debris field, prompting last weeks’ UN General Assembly vote in favour of a resolution stopping countries conducting direct-ascent anti-satellite tests that create debris. The US being one of four countries that have historically done so, initiated the resolution to stop countries creating space debris in this way. The other three, Russia, China and India didn’t support it.


The resolution doesn’t outlaw development or testing of anti-satellite systems, just testing them if that creates space debris. The goal is to forge a Space norm.

There are laws which govern Space, having their origin half a century ago and it would be natural to assume anti-satellite systems are strictly forbidden under Space law. They aren’t.

The Outer Space Treaty 1967 doesn’t outlaw military activities in outer space. Nor does it forbid weapons there, or state that the use of outer space must be exclusively for peaceful purposes.

It does say that objects carrying weapons of mass destruction mustn’t be placed in orbit around the Earth, or installed on celestial bodies, or stationed in any other manner in outer space.

Further, the Moon and other celestial bodies must be used for exclusively peaceful purposes. This means States can’t establish military installations, test any weapons or conduct any military manoeuvres – though military personnel and equipment can be used for scientific research and other peaceful exploration of the Moon and other celestial bodies.

Anti-satellite actions of this kind do have internationally agreed legal liability consequences under another Space Convention in the event of damage. Space objects which are launched remain under the jurisdiction and control of States and are effectively temporary extensions of State sovereignty into outer space.

The act of shooting satellites is not directly addressed by existing Space laws, so this UN Resolution must surely be welcome.

The threat isn’t new, but with Satellite proliferation at record levels, with a view to achieving global connectivity, the issue takes on urgency. Commercial Space is developing month on month – but the law as it pertains to use of Space moves over a span of decades. Any change of the kind passed by the UN last week, is positive, even if not a comprehensive revision of Space law to address this issue.