On March 27th, the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) did something few other countries have accomplished: they launched a missile that destroyed one of their own satellites in low Earth orbit, on purpose.
The successful missile test, named Mission Shakti, was revealed during a live televised address from the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. He stated that this test has made India a “space power”.
Initially, the orbit of the satellite was thought to be low enough that all the debris created from the blast would fall harmlessly back to Earth, where it would burn up completely upon re-entry. India’s Ministry of External Affairs affirmed that the risk of Mission Shakti was low, stating, “The test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris. Whatever debris is generated will decay and fall back onto the Earth within weeks.”
Unfortunately, it looks as though this might not be the case.
Though the satellite was destroyed at a relatively low altitude of 300km (186 miles), which is well below the ISS orbit, as well as that of most other satellites, NASA has increased the risk to the ISS by 44% in the last few days. This increased risk is due to NASA identifying 400 different pieces of orbital debris from the event.
While NASA is tracking 60 pieces that are 10cm (3.93 inches) or bigger, 24 of those have gone above the apogee of the ISS.
Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator, described the missile test as a “terrible, terrible thing” stating, “It’s unacceptable and NASA needs to be very clear about what its impact to us is. Intentionally creating orbital debris fields is not compatible with human space flight.”
Bridenstine went on to say, “The good things is, it’s low enough in Earth orbit that, over time, this will all dissipate.”
And indeed, the astronauts are thought to be safe for now. However, should the risk increase even more, the ISS can be moved out of the path of any dangerous debris, though NASA would rather not have to take this measure.
But this is not the only test of this type that has been performed. Back in 2007, China ran a similar test at a relatively high altitude which left potentially dangerous debris that are still in orbit to this day. And in 1985, the United States also used one of its own satellites for target practice.
Then, in 2008, the United States did so again when a highly classified reconnaissance satellite malfunctioned shortly after reaching orbit. Luckily, the debris from both of those tests are believed to have eventually fallen safely back to Earth.
There are potentially political ramifications to this recent test. Some feel that Indian policymakers are flirting with the idea of a more aggressive nuclear strategy. In this case, one of being able to disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons early in a crisis. Using a hit-to-kill interceptor to destroy a satellite in low Earth orbit is a very similar task to destroying a Pakistani nuclear-armed missile on a ballistic trajectory outside of Earth’s atmosphere.
Still, Prime Minister Modi claims that “India has no intention to threaten anyone. The main objective of our space program is ensuring the country’s security, its economic development, and India’s technological progress.”
The Prime Minister went on to say, “India has always been opposed to the weaponization of space and an arms race in outer space, and this test does not in any way change this position.”
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