Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced last Wednesday his nation had achieved a “historic feat” by successfully conducting an anti-satellite missile test with a ground-based missile platform, making India the fourth nation on the planet to boast such a capability. The test, however, produced at least 400 pieces of orbital debris large enough to pose a risk to other platforms in space, including the inhabited International Space Station (ISS).
That is a terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris at an apogee that goes above the International Space Station,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said Monday. “That kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight. It is not acceptable for us to allow people to create orbital debris fields that put at risk our people.”
Indian officials claim the test was conducted in the “lower atmosphere” where any debris created by the destroyed satellite would follow a decaying orbit back toward Earth and the friction created by reentry would burn it up. NASA, however, doesn’t agree with the Indian assessment, arguing its models suggest the missile test increased the risk of debris impacting the ISS by a sizeable 44% in the ten days following the test.
We are charged with enabling more activities in space than we’ve ever seen before for the purpose of benefiting the human condition, whether it’s pharmaceuticals or printing human organs in 3-D to save lives here on Earth, or manufacturing capabilities in space that you’re not able to do in a gravity well,” Bridenstine 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.”
At least one former Indian official quoted by the Times of India, however, claimed it is not a threat to the ISS, but rather America’s distaste for India’s space-bound progress that prompted Bridenstine’s criticism.
It is a mere speculative statement. This is a typical American way of dealing with the progress India made,” former chief of India’s Defense Research and Development Organization, V.K. Saraswat said. “As far as our A-Sat missile test is concerned, all these objects do not have enough velocity to survive in space for too long. With no energy or momentum, this debris generated at the 300 km altitude after the A-Sat test will ultimately fall and burn out in Earth’s atmosphere.”
To Saraswat’s point, Bridenstine agrees that the threat posed by the Indian test will subside after around ten days, but that doesn’t mitigate the threat posed in the meantime.
NASA currently tracks more than 23,000 pieces of space junk in orbit around the Earth that measures around four inches or larger due to the potential risk each piece poses to orbital assets or spacecraft. Of that number, a whopping one-third was created by a Chinese anti-satellite missile test conducted in 2007 and a collision between American and Russian communications satellites in 2009.
This video, created by NASA, shows an animation of man-made objects and debris currently in orbit around the Earth. NASA explains on its website, “The rising population of space debris increases the potential danger to all space vehicles, but especially to the International Space Station, space shuttles and other spacecraft with humans aboard.”