India's test of its anti-satellite weapon may have weakened its fight against dangerous space debris

ISRO

  • India just tested is anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) by taking down a live satellite in low earth orbit.
  • While this may make India a 'space power', it weakens its fight against dangerous space debris.
  • In the past, Russian satellites have been destroyed by space debris that was left behind by China's testing of its ASAT.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, just announced the successful test of India’s anti-satellite weapon (ASAT). In his address to the nation, where he highlighted India’s entry to the club of the world’s space powers — he left out any mention of the resulting space debris.


And, while this gambit adds India to the list of the select few nations to have done so successfully, it’s out of place with India’s role as a member of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC).

"A similar test by China in 2007 has left behind a lot of debris which is still floating around."

Ajay Lele, Senior Fellow with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA)

As a member of IADC, such a test by India could undermine the country’s credibility in the arena.

India is also a signatory of the Outer Space Treaty which prohibits the use of weapons in space and requires nations to take steps to mitigate space debris. With respect to the first part Kumar Abhijeet, a member of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) clarifies, "If we look up the international treaty. Nowhere is ASAT testing prohibited. We are very much within the international laws to make use of it."

But, in cases where space debris is created, nations are under the obligation to pay compensation for any damages that arise from it.

We are well within the norms, but if at all there any debris that has been created, since we are a part of international treaties, we owe the liability as well.

Kumar Abhijeet, Member of the International Institute of Space Law and Research Scholar at the Institute of Air and Space Law

When China tested its ASAT capabilities back in 2007, the test left behind 2,500 to 3,000 pieces of dangerous space debris in Earth’s low earth orbit (LEO). And despite never ending perception of space, debris in that particular region is a threat to other satellites.

A Russian satellite was one such victim in 2013, when a piece of space debris struck the body of the satellite, destroying it.

And, the question is not solely about space debris destroying other satellites. It's also about how space debris can result in more space debris as it knocks into older objects left behind in space. The true danger is that some of these pieces of debris are so small that it's nearly impossible to track them.

Unlike China, where the test was conducted at an altitude of 800 km, India's ASAT test was conducted only 300 km above the Earth where the probability of space debris is unlikely.

Debris also depends on where we’re doing the test. In China’s case, they did it at 800kms — we’ve conducted ours at 300kms. The debris will most likely burn up in the atmosphere. So there is minimum chance of debris being created.

Kumar Abhijeet, Member of the International Institute of Space Law and Research Scholar at the Institute of Air and Space Law

'Operation Burn Frost' was conducted in a similar manner at an altitude of 240km. Even then, while most of the debris managed to fall back to Earth within a year, a few pieces were still blasted to a higher orbit.

To prove it’s military might in space, India had the option of conducting a fly-by test where, instead of destroying a live satellite, the missile would just glide past.

A former Integrated Defence Staff Lieutenant General, HS Lidder, saw this coming when he said, “With time, we will get sucked into the military race to protect space assets and inevitably there will be a military contest in space. In a life and death scenario, space will provide the advantage.”

See also:
Indian enters an elite space club after scientists shoot down a low orbit satellite 300 km away in space, says Prime Minister Modi

India’s apex space agency is following Elon Musk's idea — and taking it a step forward

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