Debris from India's ASAT Test Could Threaten Space Station, Says NASA Chief

The US space agency describes the Indian test as a "terrible" thing and the "kind of activity [that] is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight".

New Delhi: India’s anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test on March 27 has generated debris that is posing a threat to the safety of the International Space Station, the US space agency NASA said on Monday.

In a town hall meeting with employees, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstein said, “That is a terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris at an apogee that goes above the International Space Station.” He also described India’s ASAT test as the “kind of activity [that] is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight.”

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) launched a solid-fuel missile from its test range in Odisha to intercept an Indian satellite in low-Earth orbit. In a televised address to the nation that has been seen by the opposition as an attempt to influence voters on the eve of the general election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that such a weapon was necessary if India had to safeguard its strategic assets in space.

Also read: With a Chest-Thumping Speech on ASAT Test, Narendra Modi Has Shown He Is Nervous

In his remarks, the NASA chief noted that despite the increased risk caused by the Indian debris, the ISS would be manoeuvred to get out of harm’s way – in the unlikely event that this became necessary – and that the astronauts on board are “still safe”. “The good thing is, [the debris is] low enough in Earth orbit that over time this will all dissipate,” he said, according to Space.com.

Describing the benefits for humankind from the peaceful use of space, Bridenstein said, “All of those are placed at risk when these kind of events happen — and when one country does it, then other countries feel like they have to do it as well.”

In a press statement, the Ministry of External Affairs described the Indian ASAT weapon as a ‘kinetic kill vehicle’, meaning it smashed into the satellite and broke it up into hundreds of smaller pieces. Indian officials had claimed after the test that because the weapon had smashed into the satellite at such a low altitude – at about 280 km – the resulting debris is likely to fall back to Earth in 4-6 weeks and burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere.

However, this controversial claim is likely receive more scrutiny in the coming days. Bridenstine noted that India’s test had created 60 pieces of debris “big enough to track”, and “24 of which rise higher than the International Space Station’s orbit around Earth”.

This is a significant development because debris is often potentially the most damaging consequence of ASAT exercises. When China conducted its ASAT test in 2007, it knocked out a satellite at about 800 km – an altitude at which debris does not deorbit that easily and lingers, posing a significant and continuing threat to other satellites.

In fact, debris from the Chinese test is thought to make up nearly a quarter of all orbital debris together with pieces generated from a rare two-satellite collision in 2009.

According to space.com, “As of last week, [NASA], along with the Combined Space Operations Center, had estimated that the risk to the International Space Station of small-debris impact had risen by 44 percent over a period of 10 days.”

DRDO officials have ceaselessly contended that the test wouldn’t create persistent orbital debris and could in fact be used in future to clear such debris. However, space scientists have remained unconvinced; Bridenstine’s now comment adds significant weight to their skepticism.

Scientists have agreed that the debris will likely deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere over time, but they also have disputed that there will have been too many uncertainties for all pieces of debris to be accounted for. Now, according to Bridenstine, there are 60 large pieces (wider than 10 cm) and about a third of which could potentially harm the International Space Station (ISS).

Bridentein’s strong words calling India’s ASAT test a “terrible, terrible thing” closely reflect the condemnation China received after its ASAT test in 2007. Dinesh Kumar Yadvendra, a defence expert at the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, had told The Wire that what China had done could be construed “a crime”. If Bridenstine’s words are borne out – even though they deviate from the US government’s placid statement soon after the test  – then India could come under a similarly dark cloud of consternation.

However, while China did not invite any sanctions for its actions, the number of satellites in low-Earth orbit has increased since together with the frequency of launches. Second, debris from the Chinese test does linger in orbit but at a higher altitude than the ISS’s.

An American anti-satellite exercise in 2008 had occurred at an altitude lower than both the Indian and Chinese tests, at about 250 km, and didn’t produce debris that threatened the ISS. In February that year, the US Navy launched an SM-3 missile to intercept and blow up a malfunctioning recon satellite called USA-193.

Prime Minister Modi had used the live telecast on March 27 to encourage viewers to support a strong, decisive government such as his, weeks before 900 million voters are to vote in the Lok Sabha elections. Many observers noted that Modi’s use of screen-time to promote his and his ministers’ candidature violated the Election Commission’s model code of conduct, in effect from March 10. The commission put together a committee to look into the allegations but ruled in Modi’s favour on largely technical grounds – the state broadcaster’s resources were not used to relay the prime minister’s speech.

However, it’s not clear if the Centre had okayed the ASAT test for March 27 as a way to work around the code because it emerged yesterday that the DRDO had conducted another ASAT test in February, which failed.

According to The Diplomat, there was a failed first attempt between February 10 and February 12.

While the DRDO is yet to confirm the claim, The Diplomat quoted US government officials as saying that they received a “vague heads up” in February that India was going to test an ASAT weapon. Space law (informally) requires states to notify others before conducting activities involving space-based assets.

If such a failed first test did happen, then it will have pre-dated the Pulwama attack on February 14, in which Pakistani militants killed 40 CRPF personnel and caused India-Pakistan tensions to flare up. And if it had been successful, it will also have pre-dated the code.

Also read: India’s ASAT Capability Has Been Around for Some Time Now

According to The Diplomat, the February test used a solid-fuel powered missile like the March test, but it isn’t known if the same missile was tested on both occasions. Second, according to US military intelligence, the first test “failed after 30 about seconds of flight”.

After the successful second test, an official statement from the US government reaffirmed that the country would “continue to pursue shared interests in space” with India.

As with other details, it is also not clear if both ASAT tests targeted the same satellite, Microsat-R. However, The Diplomat reasoned that this is possible because it said the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) India issued on both occasions (February and March) cordoned off a similar set of flight routes.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had launched the Microsat-R satellite onboard its PSLV C44 mission in January, into an orbit at an altitude of 274 km. Microsat-R was classified as an imaging satellite and weighed 740 kg.