Six Months After Official Deadline, 30 Fragments From ASAT Test Still in Orbit

At least 28 debris fragments are being actively tracked in low-Earth orbit or higher.

On March 27, 2019, India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) tested an anti-satellite missile for the second time, after a failed first test in February. In a live telecast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the second test a success shortly after it was completed. During the test, an ASAT missile launched from a station on Kalam Island, off the coast of Odisha, had struck and destroyed a small satellite called Microsat-R, which the Indian Space Research Organisation had launched into a low-Earth orbit on January 24, 2019.

DRDO chief G. Sateesh Reddy assured the media that all the debris created by the event would reenter the atmosphere in 45 days (i.e. by May 11), and would pose no threat to other satellites. However, defence and spaceflight experts around the world disputed the official statement, and questioned the government’s claims to safety by pointing to tracking data that showed some of the debris fragments had been launched into orbits higher than that of Microsat-R and to orbital trajectories that suggested a not insignificant number of fragments would remain in orbit till late 2020. NASA chief James Bridenstine also expressed his displeasure at the prospect of threats to the International Space Station.

According to updates shared by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, on Twitter and North American Aerospace Defence Command data compiled by CelesTrak, at least 28 debris fragments are being actively tracked in low-Earth orbit or higher. There could be more fragments that are too small to track using ground-based instruments, which have eluded detection for other reasons.

Joseph Remis, a Twitter user who has been sharing regular updates on the ASAT test debris, has compiled the predicted decay dates for 28 fragments.