Space Debris Risk Caused By Mission Shakti Overhyped, Says Rakesh Sharma

New Delhi: 

India’s successful test of an anti-satellite missile (ASAT) last month, when it shot down a satellite in space, was met with mixed reactions internationally. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the test, codenamed ‘Mission Shakti’, a “big moment for India,” US space agency NASA called the test a “terrible thing”. The test had created several pieces of space debris and posed a danger to astronauts aboard the International Space Station or the ISS, Jim Bridenstine, the head of NASA had said. The test increased the risk to the ISS by over 40 per cent, Mr Bridenstine said.

The NASA chief said that created about 400 pieces of orbital debris of which 60 pieces of debris have been tracked so far. While Indian officials said the satellite was destroyed at a relatively low altitude of 300 kilometers to minimise the impact of space debris, Mr Bridenstine said that 24 of the pieces “are going above the apogee of the International Space Station.”

Calling NASA’s response an “over-reaction”, Astronaut Wing Commander (Retd) Rakesh Sharma played down the risk to the ISS. “I do not believe that the risk factor increased in any significant way,” said Wing Commander Sharma who, in 1984, became the first Indian to venture into space.

Wing Commander Sharma was a part of Russia’s (formerly the USSR) Soyuz T-11 space mission. The expedition was launched on April 2, 1984 and he spent nearly 8 days in space.

Speaking to NDTV, Wing Commander Sharma answered questions on the degree to which space debris endangers astronauts at the International Space Station.

Q) What was your first reaction when you heard about India’s ASAT test last month?

A: While I was aware of our Ballistic Missile Development (BMD) and the successful Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP), the Anti-Satellite Weapons Test (ASAT) news took me by surprise. I was unaware of the advances we had made in the target acquisition and guidance till the impact phases of this technology. In short, the news left me filled with pride, knowing the enormity of the achievement in technological terms.

Q) Was this a necessary step; a step in the right direction for India?

A: Yes and yes. We now have the capability to deal with the “evil” eye in Space.

Q) Does this lead to weaponisation of space?

A: It does but, weaponisation of the defensive kind.

Q) Was a direct ascent hit-to-kill test the best alternative or would a laser weapon or jamming have been better?

A: We must first cut our teeth in this type of weaponry before we move on to more sophisticated ones. Let us hope that warfare itself goes out of fashion (because it is bad for business) before we need to go up that escalatory ladder.

Q) If you were an astronaut onboard the International Space Station (ISS), after having heard of ASAT, would you be more worried? Does the test increase the risk?

A: I do not believe that the risk factor increased in any significant way. The test was carried out a good 100 km lower than the ISS’ orbital height. Micrometeorites and solar flares are ever present dangers and part of the hostile environment in which manned space activity is routinely undertaken. The chances of debris being flung 100 km above the altitude of the test interception are remote, if at all it is there.

Q) Did the NASA chief over-react when he called India’s test “terrible thing”?

A: I think, yes. I did not hear any other member state working on the ISS, express a similar sentiment.

Q) Does ‘Mission Shakti’ lead to a more secure India and will we be able to protect India’s space assets more robustly now?

A: Undoubtedly.

Q) What should be the next step, more ASAT tests or development of a space doctrine?

A: I do not think more tests would be needed to operationalise the system based on this type of technology. As for a space doctrine, most certainly yes (there should be one); in order to put in place a credible, integrated and operationally effective Command and Control Centre.

Q) Has India secured a place on the ‘high table’ to negotiate how space is utilized in the future?

A: Securing a place on the ‘high table’ is one thing and I believe that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had won a seat on it some time ago. But now, I think that we are in a position to thump that table and get our voice heard while negotiating International Policy governing the use of Outer Space for peaceful purposes.

Q) Can ‘Mission Shakti’ and Gaganyaan both go on hand-in-hand, or are we endangering our astronaut program?

A: I see no conflict here. Funding constraints are unlikely. Allocations have already been made. If you are alluding to denial of training facilities abroad for our Gaganauts, it is unlikely to happen. Worst case scenario, it might delay, not derail, the Gaganyaan Project.

Q) Does India now need a full-fledged ‘Space Command’?

A: It does; as urgently as it has needed a Chief of Defence Staff. I guess the National security Advisor (NSA) and his newly formed Defence Planning Committee will now be tasked to set it up as they and not the Chief of Defence Staff is now being made responsible for our country’s security.

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