Marco Rubio Doubles Down on Call to Sanction China, Russia for Space Debris

Last month, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., brought out a bill to “impose sanctions on foreign actors that recklessly create space debris, which endangers American operations in orbit” and now the Biden administration is stressing how space debris can be a problem.

Rubio introduced the “Deterring Errant Behavior Risking International Space (DEBRIS) Act” and pointed to a recent incident as to why he thinks the bill is needed.

“On November 15, 2021, without any prior warning, Russia tested a dangerous, direct-ascent anti-satellite missile in low-Earth orbit. According to the U.S. Department of State, the test ‘generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations,’” Rubio’s office noted.

“We must punish reckless space behavior,” Rubio said when he brought out the bill. “Russia and China should be held accountable for negligently creating space debris and endangering space assets critical to our national security. My bill would create consequences for this dangerous behavior and protect our astronauts and space infrastructure.”

According to Rubio’s office the bill “would establish a sanctions structure for foreign persons responsible for creating space debris without notification to the U.S. government, as well as require notification to Congress about persons sanctioned under this act” and “would include exceptions for instances in which the foreign entity has been acting within a civil space cooperation agreement with the United States or has been working in compliance with United Nations law enforcement objectives, as well as for the importation of goods. “

Rubio’s bill was sent to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has not reeled in any co-sponsors and there is no companion measure over in the U.S. House.

However, this week, Vice President Kamala Harris said the Biden administration is taking more steps to cur down on space debris.

“I just received a briefing from the 18th Space Defense Squadron, and their work is incredibly impressive,” Harris said this week. “So far, the 18th has identified more than 1,600 pieces of debris from the Russian test. There are over 2,800 pieces of debris still in space from China’s test 15 years ago. Like air traffic controllers for space, the 18th tracks debris and satellites to prevent collisions. This debris presents a risk to the safety of our astronauts, our satellites, and our growing commercial presence. A piece of space debris the size of a basketball, which travels at thousands of miles per hour, would destroy a satellite. Even a piece of debris as small as a grain of sand could cause serious damage. “

We have consistently condemned these tests and called them…reckless. But that is not enough,” Harris added. “Today we are going further. I am pleased to announce that as of today, the United States commits not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing. Simply put: these tests are dangerous, and we will not conduct them. We are the first nation to make such a commitment. And today, on behalf of the United States of America, I call on all nations to join us.

“Whether a nation is spacefaring or not, we believe this will benefit everyone, just as space benefits everyone,” Harris continued. “In the days and months ahead, we will work with other nations to establish this as a new international norm for responsible behavior in space. And there is a direct connection between such a norm and the daily life of the American people. If a satellite was taken out by debris, it could affect the daily weather forecast, GPS driving directions, and even your favorite TV station. Critical infrastructure, like wind turbines that power our homes, well, they rely on satellites for connectivity. Satellites help us track the climate crisis. They enable our commercial activities. And they help us protect our troops and our people. All of this is threatened by the debris created by these reckless tests. These tests also threaten the lives of astronauts in the International Space Station. In fact, I spoke earlier this month with Mark Vande Hei who just returned from 355 days in space on the Space Station. An American record. While he was in space, Russia conducted its anti-satellite missile test. He had to shelter in an escape capsule in case the Space Station was hit by debris. Russia’s action was a threat not just to his life, but also to those of Russian cosmonauts.

“Our commitment today is just one step. Our administration has already begun to establish a broader and comprehensive set of norms,” Harris said. “One example is the Artemis Accords — a set of principles that will guide civil use of space. They are designed to create a safe and transparent environment for space exploration, science, and commercial activities. Since our administration took office, we have doubled — to 18 — the number of nations to sign on. As we move forward, we will remain focused on writing new rules of the road to ensure all space activities are conducted in a responsible, peaceful, and sustainable manner. The United States is committed to lead the way and to lead by example. The leadership of the United States in space will continue to be a source of strength for us, both at home and abroad. And our administration, with the help of all of you here on this base, are going to ensure future generations will benefit from space just as we have today.”

Rubio told Politico he was happy to have the help but said Congress needed to pass his proposal.

“I am glad the Biden administration is calling attention to the national security risks, but it will take more than naming and shaming Moscow and Beijing to change their behavior,” Rubio told Politico. “There needs to be accountability and consequences.

“My DEBRIS Act is the type of commonsense bill that could pass the Senate without much delay, especially if the Biden Administration comes out in support,” Rubio added.”I am hopeful we can move fast on this and protect American astronauts and assets in orbit.”

Kevin Derby
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