On March 27, during the course of Mission Shakti (Hindi for ‘strength’), the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) used an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile to destroy a defunct satellite in a low-Earth orbit. The missile had been launched from the DRDO’s site on Kalam Island, off the coast of Odisha.
The usual claims followed. “India is now a superpower”. “We did it in one attempt.” “We are the fourth after China but they succeeded after four failed attempts.” Setting aside these headlines, it is worth considering the mission’s real shakti.
To chase down a satellite travelling at 7 km/s and to blast it out of orbit is indeed a fantastic technical achievement. However, ours is a country that can manoeuvre a satellite into orbit around a celestial body. Such precision has already been achieved in the Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan missions. What is new?
Recently, a US-based organisation called the Federation of American Scientists declared that an earlier DRDO test of an ASAT weapon in February 2019 had failed. However, DRDO claimed it hadn’t really ‘failed’ because it had chased down an electronic target correctly.
In fact, the event creates a cloud of debris that could affect future launch plans and low-Earth orbit missions, including Gaganyaan. It should not be forgotten that the debris will include the satellite and the ASAT weapon’s uppermost stage.
We are told that the debris will deorbit and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere in 45 days. However, in those 45 days, what can happen is anybody’s guess. Simple physics says that if the velocity of an orbiting object changes, the object’s orbit will also change. So when a satellite is blown up, the debris will suffer a velocity change and some of the debris will actually go into a higher orbit while others will go into a lower one. That is, the debris will create an expanding cloud.
This is now borne out by NASA as well. Its chief Jim Bridenstine said at a townhall meeting earlier this week that small debris from the test had increased risk to the International Space Station (ISS) by 44%. The ISS is in a low-Earth orbit at about 400 km.
It is also notable that the smaller an object is, the lesser the drag it will experience in orbit, and the more time it will take to deorbit. Therefore, the DRDO’s claim of 45 days is highly optimistic. It should be remembered that even a microscopic piece of debris can puncture a space vehicle in a critical area because of its high speed.
Then there is the issue of liabilities. What if the debris incapacitates another satellite or launch vehicle?
The debris aspect of the ASAT test has received the most media attention in the last week, and deservingly so. However, it isn’t the only issue with Mission Shakti. There are at least three more.
India, officials said, can now “protect” its space assets. These are primarily communication satellites in geosynchronous and geostationary orbits (36,000 km up) and Earth-observation satellites in Sun-synchronous orbits between 700 km and 1,000 km. It is not clear how destroying a satellite in low-Earth orbit gives us the capacity to safeguard these assets.
Satellites in low-Earth orbit are usually surveillance satellites with imaging and electronic intelligence capabilities, and Shakti’s abilities are limited to targeting them. (One example of a satellite with the latter toolset is EMISAT, launched on the PSLV C45 mission on April 1.)
Second, officials have also been stressing that the test broke no law. However, space law isn’t the only entity India is mindful of; there are also treaties. Perhaps the most overarching one is the UN Outer Space Treaty. It specifically prohibits nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction from being placed in orbit. However, it does fail to discuss kinetic bombardment weapons, and India could have used this loophole to conduct the test.
Reconsidering Mission Shakti de novo would be great if India could develop an ability to forcibly deorbit rogue satellites – instead of destroying them – thus not creating debris. Even better would be if India could improve its anti-ballistic-missile system to intercept a foreign ASAT missile before it can complete its mission. If so, there would be no space debris but the risk of some pieces of the missile hitting the ground.
Such tactics will also be more useful than A destroying B’s satellite in retaliation for B destroying A’s. In the end, both countries will just be more blind, and hopefully learn that ‘an eye for an eye’ does not offer constructive solutions.
Third, both the US and the former Soviet Union tested such weapons during the Cold War; China got into the act in 2007; now India has joined this “elite club”. The official line, it appears, is to stand up and be counted when a treaty banning the weaponisation of space is effected.
However, India has suffered at the hands of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was created by the haves of nuclear weapons to keep the have-nots as have-nots by insisting they sign the treaty. If it does become a signatory, India will have to throw open its nuclear assets and welcome scrutiny of the purchases and sale of nuclear items – terms to which India has found it can’t agree.
In the same vein, China and Russia appear to be on the verge of stationing weapons in space. The US has mooted a ‘Star Wars’ programme that includes a ‘space command’. So the thinking seems to be that India – at least a more gung-ho part of it – shouldn’t find itself on the wrong side of the line of a potential future treaty on space weapons.
However, even though India has not signed the NPT, it remains constantly exposed to nuclear blackmail. In the same way, it is not clear what India will gain by becoming a founding member of a ‘weapons in space treaty’. Does India want to set up a ‘space command’?
Perhaps it is all about josh.
Arup Dasgupta is the managing editor of Geospatial World and former deputy director of the Space Applications Centre, ISRO.