Why has India shot down a satellite in space and what is Mission Shakti?

Test has already led to fears about the militarisation of space and the increasing damage the world’s biggest powers could cause

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 27 March 2019 14:31
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'Today, India has registered its name as a space superpower' Modi on successful test of anti-satellite missile

India has successfully destroyed a satellite in space. This time, it was one of their own as part a planned mission – but the moment is a major breakthrough in both space technology and the country’s military might.

It was the first time that India has ever successfully tested such technology. And it becomes only the fourth country in the world to have access to it.

As such, it comes amid fear over the weaponisation of space and the damage that could be unleashed by any possible war that could take place between countries with the ability not only to cause great destruction on Earth but in space too.

The major breakthrough was announced by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who said the country had now rivalled a major achievement matched only by the US, Russia and China.

“Our scientists shot down a live satellite 300 kilometres away in space, in low-Earth orbit,” Modi said in a television broadcast.

“India has made an unprecedented achievement today,” he added, speaking in Hindi. “India registered its name as a space power.”

India has already made a series of breakthroughs in its space programme, making earth imaging satellites and launch capabilities as a cheaper alternative to western programmes. That programme has sent missions to Mars and to the moon, and hopes to send people into space by 2022.

But the new breakthrough, known in India as “Mission Shakti”, is notable as a major military achievement as well as an engineering and aerospace one. In statements, the Indian government referred to it as a military technology – and fears have been sparked across the world that it could be just one moment in a growing race to become a space power.

Why is this so important?

The very act of being able to launch such technology – aside from the geopolitical implications it might have – is impressive. It has been likened to shooting a moving bullet with another bullet, and there are plenty of reasons why only three countries have achieved it until now.

In itself, launching a missile into space is complicated enough. But being able to intercept an existing satellite with one means being able to be extra precise, and relies on engineering and aerospace capabilities that is built on top of an already developed space programme.

But the engineering and technical achievement is dwarfed in comparison to the power of the moment itself. Having done this is an achievement for the Indian military and space programme – but being able to do it again in the future is when the real power becomes clear.

How powerful is the ability to blow up other country’s satellites?

As much as anything else, India’s successful test is a military breakthrough. It puts it on a closer footing with various other states – and, crucially gives them an important ability to undermine any country they wish to.

If a country can destroy an enemy’s satellites, they can knock out crucial intelligence and communications in one go. That can cause intense problems across the country, as well as undermining military operations.

With the successful test on Wednesday, India theoretically holds other countries’ satellites at risk.

Neighbouring Pakistan, with which India traded airstrikes last month, has several satellites in orbit, launched using Chinese and Russian rockets.

But China, which put dozens of satellites in orbit in 2018 alone, according to state media, could see India’s fledgling capability as more of a threat.

India needed to build anti-satellite weapons “because adversary China has already done it in 2007”, said Ajay Lele of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

“More than anything I would say through this India is sending a message to the subcontinent,” he added. “India is saying that we have mechanisms for space warfare.

What happens to all the debris?

There’s already a lot of mess in space: old, defunct satellites and various other pieces of space junk fly around and pose an extreme risk to the various bits of technology that are still up there and working. Anti-satellite tests can make this risk even worse: the pieces of blown up satellites are flung through space many times faster than the bullet from a gun.

The International Space Station, for example, regularly tweaks its orbit to avoid debris of all kinds.

China’s 2007 test is considered the most destructive. Because the impact took place at an altitude of more than 800 km (500 miles), many of the resulting scraps stayed in orbit.

The US test in 2008 did not create as much orbital debris, and because it was at a lower altitude, atmospheric drag caused much of it to fall toward Earth and burn up.

India’s foreign ministry said in a statement that its test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure there was no debris in space and that whatever was left would “decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks”.

The US Strategic Command, which tracks objects in orbit for the US military, had no immediate comment on Wednesday’s test.

How does this compare with other countries’ tests?

The United States performed the first anti-satellite tests in 1959, when satellites themselves were rare and new.

Bold Orion, designed as a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile re-purposed to attack satellites, was launched from a bomber and passed close enough to the Explorer 6 satellite for it to have been destroyed if the missile had been armed.

The Soviet Union performed similar tests around the same time. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it tested a weapon that could be launched in orbit, approach enemy satellites and destroy them with an explosive charge, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit research and advocacy organisation.

In 1985, the United States tested the ASM-135, launched from an F-15 fighter jet, destroying an American satellite called Solwind P78-1.

There were no tests for more than 20 years.

Then in 2007, China entered the anti-satellite arena by destroying an old weather satellite in a high, polar orbit. The test created the largest orbital debris cloud in history, with more than 3,000 objects, according to the Secure World Foundation, a group that advocates sustainable and peaceful uses of outer space.

The next year, the United States carried out Operation Burnt Frost, using a ship-launched SM-3 missile to destroy a defunct spy satellite.

Additional reporting by agencies

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