Concerns: Space debris, danger to other satellites, trigger to similar moves from other countries
With the success of Mission Shakti on March 27, 2019, India now has registered its military presence in space. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India had not broken any space treaties and the Union Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) put out an FAQ clarifying the reasons for the test, the timing and space debris concerns. But experts are not satisfied with the explanation.
The MEA made a claim in its FAQ that "the test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris. Whatever debris that is generated will decay and fall back onto the Earth within weeks." But 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.
First the wording of the ministry's statement is confusing. "The interception did not occur in the lower atmosphere — if it did, the satellite wouldn't have been in orbit. What they meant to say was that it happened in low Earth orbit (LEO), which generally is considered to be anywhere between 100-2,000 kilometres", says Samson. But then the ministry said that the satellite was hit at a height of 300 kilometres (km) above the Earth which puts it in LOE.
Samson explains that at 300 km, most of the debris will get pulled back into the Earth's atmosphere due to the planet's gravitational pull and most likely burn up upon re-entry within several weeks." But she also highlights the risks. "This test looks a lot like the US' Burnt Frost in 2008, which created 174 pieces of debris. In that case, most of the debris did de-orbit within about a month and a half; however, due to the angle of impact, roughly a dozen pieces of debris got thrown higher and one piece stayed in orbit for 18 months", says Samson.
"So for the Indian ASAT test, of the 250 or so pieces of debris generated from the test, most probably will come back down over the next few months. But there is a very good chance that a not insignificant amount will be around for a while", she adds.
US government officials have not taken kindly to Modi's announcement.
“My message would be: We all live in space, let us not make it a mess. Space should be a place where we can conduct business. Space is a place where people should have the freedom to operate”, United States (US) Defense Secretary Patrick Shahanan told the media on March 28 without making a specific reference to India.
The creation of space debris can be of high risk to satellites and other space installations. In fact, the US military’s strategic command is tracking 250 pieces of space debris generated by India’s ASAT test. It would also issue “close approach notifications as required until the debris enters the Earth’s atmosphere,” said Pentagon spokesman, Dave Eastburn.
Space debris is not a small problem. “There are currently more than 22,300 individual pieces of space debris that we have been able to identify and regularly track, but this number is set to increase if nothing is done to mitigate the issue,” says Rita Rinaldo, the head of institutional projects at the European Space Agency (ESA).
“India had the underlying technology for the ASAT from its Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) programme. The difference between an ABM and an ASAT is software. At Burnt Frost, where the US had used a capability ancillary to its missile defense systems to intercept a crippled satellite, specialised upgrades were required. The same can be said of the Indian capability. It is about the hardware and the software,” Michael J Listner, Founder & Principal at Space Law & Policy Solutions, a space policy think tank based in New Hampshire, US, told Down to Earth (DTE).
The primary reason why India had not conducted the Anti Satellite (ASAT) test all these years despite having the technology to do so was its concerns about space debris. It had wanted to act responsibly, a claim that it can no longer make.
For example, in February 2010, VK Saraswat, currently a member of NITI Aayog who at that time was the head of India’s Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), had said, “In Agni-III, we have the building blocks and the capability to hit a satellite but we don't have to hit a satellite due to debris concerns; instead, India will validate the anti-satellite capability on the ground through simulation.”
Again in 2012, he had reiterated that “India has all the building blocks for an anti-satellite system in place. We don't want to weaponise space but the building blocks should be in place because you may come to a time when you may need it. We will not do a physical test (actual destruction of a satellite) because of the risk of space debris affecting other satellites.” So between 2012 and 2019, have we become less responsible towards space resources which we share with all the countries of the world?
Another concern that emanates out of India’s muscle flexing in space is destabilisation by triggering a new space race. “My sense is this test will not be seen as much as a space power as a potential threat from the perspective of China. It could either act as a deterrent to China’s ASAT program or motivate Beijing to field it earlier,” says Listner.
“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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