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Reactions mixed regarding India’s anti-satellite test

India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, addresses his country regarding the anti-satellite missile test. Photo Credit: Office of the Prime Minister of India

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, addresses his country regarding the anti-satellite missile test. Photo Credit: Office of the Prime Minister of India

Just over a day after India tested an anti-satellite missile by targeting and destroying one of its own spacecraft in a low-Earth orbit, the reaction from around the world has been varied.

On March 27, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, announced to the world that “Mission Shakti” was a success. It destroyed an in-orbit satellite that was at an altitude of about 186 miles (300 kilometers). According to the Indian government, the missile used traveled roughly 186 miles (300 kilometers) within 3 minutes to hit the target.

“The success achieved today should be seen as a step in the direction of building a secure nation, a prosperous nation, and a peace-loving nation,” Modi said in a government statement. “It is necessary for us to look ahead and prepare for the future today.”

Modi is up for re-election in just over two weeks, according to the New York Times. It is expected to be the largest election in Indian history with some 900 million registered voters.

In Modi’s statement to his country, he said the test was not directed against anyone, nor did India intend to threaten any country. Instead, he said it was an effort to “secure a fast growing India.” He also said despite the test, India has always been opposed to the weaponization of space and an arms race in space, claiming the test doesn’t change that position, nor does it violate any international law or treaty that India is a signatory.

“The main objective of our space program is ensuring the country’s security, its economic development and India’s technological progress,” Modi said. “Today’s Mission Shakti is another important step in ensuring these dreams, which is important for ensuring the security of all these three pillars.”

The satellite destroyed was likely Microsat-R, according to Indian media, which was 1,630 pounds (740 kilograms) and launched in January 2019 to be used for military imaging.

It is unclear at this point how many pieces of new space debris was formed, but because of the low orbit, it won’t likely remain for long, probably only several weeks.

Additionally, while the target was well below most operational satellites and the International Space Station, which orbits at an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers), it is possible the energy of the collision created debris with orbits that go higher than these altitudes, posing a minimal risk to critical spacecraft.

A graphic of space debris in Earth orbit. Image Credit: NASA

A graphic of space debris in Earth orbit. Image Credit: NASA

Destroying satellites, creating debris


India is now the fourth country with a demonstrated ability to destroy orbiting satellites via missiles launched from the ground. The others are the United States, Russia and China.

The most consequential anti-satellite test to date was when China destroyed one of its own satellites during a missile test in 2007.

On Jan. 11, 2007, China destroyed the defunct 1,650-pound (750-kilogram) FY-1C weather satellite, which was in a polar orbit at an altitude of about 537 miles (865 kilometers). It’s destruction created more than 3,000 trackable pieces larger than an inch and likely around 150,000 particles.

Today, most of that debris is still in orbit and still effects spacecraft such as the International Space Station, which periodically have to perform orbital avoidance maneuvers.

Indeed in June 2011, one such piece likely passed within 1,100 feet (335 meters) of the ISS, according to Phys.org at the time. It was so close and detected so late that the only option was for the six-person crew to retreat to their Soyuz spacecraft just in case it actually hit the space station.

The United States has also destroyed a satellite in space. The most recent was in February 2008 when the U.S. Navy destroyed a malfunctioning satellite. It was claimed to be done for safety as there was a toxic hydrazine tank that would have survived re-entry and potentially caused harm to a person on the ground.

Additionally, like India’s test, the spacecraft was at a low altitude and the debris field didn’t last long.

A tiny piece of debris in 2016 produced a 7-millimeter chip in a window on the International Space Station’s Cupola module. Photo Credit: ESA/NASA

A tiny piece of debris in 2016 produced a 7-millimeter chip in a window on the International Space Station’s Cupola module. The debris origin is unknown. Photo Credit: ESA/NASA

Varied reactions to India’s test


Modi said India’s anti-satellite technology was developed indigenously and will “further peace and harmony” for India.

Not everybody agreed with that statement, however. In a statement, commercial company Planet Labs condemned the test.

“While Planet enjoys a great working partnership with agencies of India’s government—like ISRO—we categorically condemn the anti-satellite missile intercept recently conducted by India’s defense department,” the statement reads. “Space should be used for peaceful purposes, and destroying satellites on orbit severely threatens the long term stability of the space environment for all space operators. Planet urges all space-capable nations to respect our orbital commons.”

It is important to note that Planet purchases space on the Indian Space Resource Organisation’s PSLV launch vehicle to send many of its customers’ satellites into space. Their statement did not indicate whether the company would continue doing so.

In a March 28 statement, the U.S. State Department’s official response was that it was taking “note” of the test, according to ANI.

“The issue of space debris is an important concern for the U.S. government,” reads a statement by the State Department. “We took note of Indian government statements that the test was designed to address space debris issues.”

However, the statement neither congratulates, nor condemns, the test. Instead it reaffirms the State Department’s efforts to continue to “pursue shared interests in space and scientific and technical cooperation.”

Additionally, China’s reaction was similar to the United States, adding it hopes “each country will uphold peace and tranquility in outer space.”

During a congressional budget hearing on March 27, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was also asked about the issue of space debris, if it is getting worse and if there are laws that prevent other countries from purposefully creating more of it. However, the Indian anti-satellite test was not mentioned by name during the conversation.

“Yes, space debris is getting worse, not better,” Bridenstine said. “Debris ends up being [in space] for a long time. If we wreck space, we’re not getting it back.”

Bridenstine said that NASA and other agencies throughout the government, as well as other governments’ agencies, are working on ways to increase space situational awareness to better track and better prevent debris created by space activities.

“It’s also important to note that creating debris fields intentionally is wrong,” Bridenstine said. “That’s an important point, because some people like to test anti-satellite capabilities intentionally and create orbital debris fields that we today are still dealing with and those same countries come to us for space situational awareness because of the debris field that they themselves created.”

Bridenstine said the U.S. provides that service of space situational awareness to the entire world for free on the dime of U.S. taxpayers.

“So the entire world needs to step up and say ‘if you’re going to do this, you’re going to pay a consequence,’” Bridenstine said. “Right now that consequence is not being paid.”

NASA Administrator Bridenstine’s comments on space debris on March 27, 2019. Video courtesy of the House Appropriations Committee

 

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Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity. He met with members of the SpaceFlight Insider team during the flight of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket with the MUOS-4 satellite. Richardson joined our team shortly thereafter. His passion for space ignited when he watched Space Shuttle Discovery launch into space Oct. 29, 1998. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized his true calling was communicating to others about space. Since joining SpaceFlight Insider in 2015, Richardson has worked to increase the quality of our content, eventually becoming our managing editor. @TheSpaceWriter

Reader Comments

The comment by the Jim Bridenstine is interesting about Space situational awareness – that the US taxpayer is funding it and providing it free to the world. It is however untrue to say that other nations do not have space situational awareness – as quite a few have the ability and do track space and its objects even if they do not share this information freely.

It is similar to the GPS – which is also free and used by countries around the world yet other countries have their own GPS systems as well – like the Chinese Beidou, the European Gallileo and others.

The question of “others must pay” might make more nations invest on robust space situational awareness systems of their own – but it wont bring NASA any money.

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