Science & Technology

Mission Shakti was supposed to make India proud. Is it doing so?

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says such events are not compatible with human space flight; increased risk to ISS by 44%

By Abida Khan
Last Updated: Tuesday 02 April 2019
Representational Photo: Getty Images

Prime Minister Narendra Modi created much excitement on March 27, 2019 morning with the announcement of an upcoming speech. With the model code of conduct in place, the media — and social media — went berserk speculating what his speech had in store.

Most expected electoral promises related to farmers’ welfare or some new ground-shattering economic scheme. After some delay, the PM proclaimed India’s success and pride in testing its first anti-satellite, or ASAT, missile called Mission Shakti.  

It was announced as a moment of pride for the nation as the ASAT missile had successfully hit a live satellite which was flying in a Low Earth Orbit. The success of the mission was said to be indicative of India registering its military presence in space.

But roughly a week since the sudden speech, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, when questioned during a town hall event, termed the testing as a “terrible, terrible thing” to have happened.

“Intentionally creating orbital debris field is not compatible with human space flight. Here's what we know about the most recent satellite tests done by India: we have identified 400 pieces of orbital debris from that one event,” he said.

“Now all of that cannot be tracked. What we are tracking right now are objects big enough to track — objects that are 10 centimetres or bigger. About 60 such pieces have been tracked. Of those 60, we know that about 24 of them are going above the apogee of the International Space Station (ISS).” Bridenstine added.

He emphasised that an event such as this not only poses threat to the ISS but also endangers life of astronauts. “That is a terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris in an altitude that goes above the ISS, and that kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human space flight.”

Bridenstine said due to the very event, the “risk to the ISS was increased by 44 per cent over a period of ten days. The good thing is: its low enough in earth orbit so in time this will all dissipate.”

He went on to mention a similar ASAT test conducted by China in 2007, debris from which are “still in the orbit”. Although he claimed that US, owing to its tax payer's money, is responsible for space situation awareness, management and analysis of orbital debris created by another nation; the country has been one of the first to indulge in such space adventurism.   

Going back to the history of ASAT, these satellites’ use for military purposes became popular during the Cold War period when both USSR and USA used these to intensify their presence in space and shoot down spy satellites.

If that is India’s reason to develop such technology, then in the contemporary times they don’t seem to hold much ground. Media reports quoted former ISRO satellite communication engineer N Kalyan Raman saying, “In a war-like situation, if a country wants to spy on its enemies there are various ways to do it — for example, Google Earth. All you need is good resolution photos. Why do we even need this?”

"Most of the countries' satellites are in the higher orbit, and even with this India won't be able to knock out those satellites," he was quoted as saying.

As reported by Down To Earth, Victoria Samson, Washington Office Director at the Secure World Foundation, a private foundation that works on space security, says that the actual situation is not as simple. “Part of the reason why so few countries have sought this capability is that it can be extremely destabilising. During the Cold War, the US and the USSR tested ASATs but had largely stopped by the mid-1980s. China held an ASAT test in 2007 and then the US did a satellite shoot-down in 2008 (I would argue in response to the Chinese effort). The concern is two-fold: that large amounts of debris will be created by ASAT testing and thus endanger other satellites, and that countries will feel like their satellites are in danger and respond accordingly”, Samson told DTE.

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