ISRO chairman K. Sivan talks about the Chandrayaan 2 mission, September 2019. Photo: Twitter/@Chethan_Dash.
The recent, barely avoided collision between India’s Cartosat 2F and Russia’s Kanopus V satellites highlights the need for transparent space situational awareness (SSA) in India.
Information about the close call only became public after a tweet by Roscosmos – the Russian state space corporation – that went into specifics about the incident. The response of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s chairman K. Sivan makes it clear that India does not publicly discuss such events, and resolves them by coordinating with other space agencies.
On November 27 at 01:49 UTC, the Indian CARTOSAT 2F satellite weighing over 700 kg dangerously approached the Russian Kanopus-V spacecraft.
The minimum distance between the Russian and foreign satellites was 224 meters. Both spacecraft are designed for Earth’s remote sensing pic.twitter.com/WygY6oPqGf
— РОСКОСМОС (@roscosmos) November 27, 2020
Indeed, Earth’s orbits are getting crowded with both active satellites and with junk. To keep its satellites working and achieve its long-term goals in space, India will need a more transparent and permissive approach to SSA. This will achieve the dual task of mitigating the dangers of accidents and boost India’s demonstrated capabilities in space.
Some of the immediate changes to the approach of ISRO and the Department of Space can include accepting inputs from credible but informal sources as supplemental streams of data, releasing non-sensitive SSA data from own assets, and encouraging scholarship on SSA from Indian space professionals made accessible to the world.
The trouble with opacity
According to Russia, the two satellites were just 224 metres apart at their closest, although India insists the distance was 420 metres. This reminds us of India’s claim after the 2019 anti-satellite missile test – that all space debris created by the test would fall back down to Earth, and burn up in the atmosphere, within 45 days. But experts around the world contested this claim. Data from Marco Langbroek, a noted expert in the international community of space-watchers, actively refuted ISRO’s assertions.
In such cases, much of the blame belongs to the lack of publicly corroborated data being available from ISRO’s SSA assets. In the modern world and in the context of spaceflight, every nation is best judged only by their demonstrated capabilities. So, among other things, the ASAT incident and its aftermath diminished the level of presumed efficiency and competency the Indian space programme is typically associated with.
ISRO had a Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) that it followed last year with a Space Situational Awareness control centre in Bengaluru. However, ISTRAC sources all of its inputs from its own assets and from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). It pays little or no regard to amateur space watchers and hobbyist-enthusiasts, who have proven time and again to be quite reliable. Many of them have made a name for themselves in the open-source intelligence (OSINT) sphere as semi-professionals. They are often counted among credible sources by their country’s defence establishments and space functionaries.
ISTRAC also doesn’t share any data publicly and limits its SSA information engagement to India’s state functionaries and international bodies with which it has signed various agreements.
Opacity, proximity operations and plausible deniability
The double jeopardy of neither accepting inputs from other credible sources nor publishing non-sensitive SSA data may cost India dearly.
Space has become a hotbed of both military and civilian activity. Other experts and commentators have written a lot about the centrality of a state’s satellite infrastructure to its civilian and military capabilities, and how its security also requires the defence of its space-based assets.
Today, adversarial states can use spacecraft that conduct ‘proximity operations’ to physically sabotage satellites or compromise their operational security by collecting intelligence. So it’s important to have more than a handful of people working behind closed doors to watch our skies and our space assets.
The inherent danger in publicly releasing SSA data is often thought to be the inference of the exact location and technical specifications of classified space assets by the enemy. Admittedly, we can’t discount this risk. However, gains in public accountability and transparency will deter the enemy from striking our assets covertly and hiding behind the veil of plausible deniability. This is a good deal.
A way forward
ISRO can change the way it approaches SSA by being more open both ways. It can set up a mechanism through which the international OSINT community can provide inputs to a point of contact at ISRO, through a public-facing email address, telephone number and/or document-sharing service.
Ideally, ISRO should aim to supplement the data collected from its own assets with the data supplied by any consistently good streams from the OSINT community. The idea is to single out sources through silent corroboration with more formal sources. These inputs, if curated properly, can serve as an additional stream of information that will make a world of difference to any future ISRO endeavours – including Gaganyaan, the highly anticipated human spaceflight programme.
ISRO should also take a leaf out of NORAD’s, and more broadly the US space administration’s, playbook and strive to make any non-sensitive two-line element (TLE) data available openly. Like a latitude and longitude data set can pinpoint any particular location on Earth, TLE data is what you’d use to infer where a satellite is, what its orbit is and other orbital characteristics.
In India, there is also a dearth of literature in the public domain about SSA proliferation. The only recognisable authority figure with some commentary on the subject is V. Adimurthy, and he has also stressed over many decades about the need for a transparent and effective SSA effort. So ISRO and the Department of Space need to encourage scholarship about SSA from India’s space professionals.
Aditya Pareek is a junior research analyst and Pradeep Mohandas is an adjunct researcher, both at the Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru.