Opinion: India's Space Force – ASAT and what the fuss is all about

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If you’ve been living under a rock, it’s probably because you’re taking shelter from the falling space debris! But seriously, the Indian ASAT project or “Mission Shakti” as it’s been called by the government, has made a big splash across the headlines all over the world and has definitely ruffled some feathers over at NASA. But are they justified in being concerned? Should we have launched ASAT in the first place? Here are some of my thoughts on the matter.

So what really happened?

I’m sure you already know but let’s recap. On March 27, 2019, India, through its space agency ISRO, launched Mission Shakti, it’s Anti Satellite ballistic missile. It was a success. The target satellite was destroyed at an altitude of 300 km. Prime Minister Narendra Modi commended the event saying that India has now been established as a space power. He also said that this measure has been taken to ensure the protection of the people of India, not just in the present, but far into the future.

The controversy

The primary focus of the news, though, seems to be about the head of NASA, Jim Bridenstine, saying this was a “terrible, terrible thing” and that there are 24 pieces from the collision “are going above the apogee of the ISS”. This has added a 44% increase in the risk of damage to the ISS (International Space Station). That matter seems serious. And it is!

Space debris is a genuine threat to anything in orbit. There are already thousands of pieces being tracked by NASA and many more too small to track. Mission Shakti has added around 400 pieces, according to NASA, to the field of space junk floating around us, which consists of around 23,000 pieces bigger than 10 cms.

On the other hand, India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that the test was carried out at a low altitude to ensure that the space debris decays out of orbit. They say there’s no reason for worry. I do think that sounds kind of plausible, but how sure can you be that all the pieces from the collision will fall back to earth? There’s no way to calculate any of that with any level of certainty.

Known orbit planes of  Fengyun-1C  debris one month after its disintegration by the Chinese ASAT (orbits exaggerated for visibility)

Known orbit planes of Fengyun-1C debris one month after its disintegration by the Chinese ASAT (orbits exaggerated for visibility)

India wasn’t the first though

The US and Russia have been shooting rockets into space for quite a few years during the cold war. The US finally shut it down in 1988. However, there was one incident in 2008, when they launched a missile to destroy a spy satellite that was falling out of orbit. They shot it down with the explanation that it contained a toxic fuel, and they didn’t want it to harm anyone near the crash site. Russia, on the other hand, is still active in testing and shows no signs of stopping. Where’s their slap on the wrist?

And then there’s China, who carried out a test in 2007 on one of their own satellites. It was at an altitude of around 865 km – much higher than the Mission Shakti target. It also created over 3,000 fragments of debris. That seems like a much more irresponsible act than the Indian one if you ask me. I wonder what Bridenstine would have said about that.

And then, there are the elections

Many see this move as another strategic ploy by the BJP to garner votes for the upcoming general elections. And that may well be true. From more recent news about how they dealt with the Pulwama attack, they don’t seem to be above such risks to get votes.

India’s ASAT may be necessary

Not to mention the tensions with Pakistan, India does have a lot of satellites in orbit for a variety of purposes. It’s not a far fetched idea that we may need to have measures ready to protect those assets or to protect our country from attacks from up there.

On the other hand, I don’t see this as an urgent requirement for our country. I think we would be far better off promoting space exploration and peaceful alliances with other countries to work on space missions. We are doing it, we are good at it, and getting better. Let’s funnel a bit more money and enthusiasm in that direction, shall we?

Conclusion

As far as this can be a justified move from some perspectives, it does reek of election pandering taken to the next level! And just because Russia is still at it, and China’s done it in the past, doesn’t mean we have to follow suit. We could well draw the admiration of the world and our citizens by encouraging more peaceful endeavours like exploration. Let’s give Elon Musk some competition! Let’s get to Mars before everyone else. Don’t you think that’s a more worthy endeavour?

Further Reading

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