NASA Claims Debris from India’s Antisatellite Test Risky for International Space Station


Jeff Keyzer (flickr)

NASA-Space Center

Muhammad Javed, Reporter

NASA has termed India’s late antisatellite test it carried out in late March, a “terrible, terrible thing”.

After a week India announced that it had successfully destroyed one of its own satellites.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator speaking at an event in Washington DC said, “That is a terrible, terrible thing, to create an event that sends debris in an apogee that goes above the International Space Station.”

The U.S. Space Agency’s administrator said orbital debris created by the missile test had put the International Space Station at risk.

The New York Times quoting Mr. Bridenstine reported, “NASA had identified 400 pieces of orbital debris from the test, including about 60 trackable pieces at least 10 centimeters in size. Two dozen pieces were identified above the highest point of the International Space Station’s orbit. The station serves as a research laboratory and has hosted astronauts from 18 countries since it was launched into orbit in 1998.”

Bridenstine said that the antisatellite test had “increased the risk of small-debris impact to the International Space Station by 44 percent”.

India’s Defense Research and Development Organization rejected NASA’s criticism by saying that,

“The mission had been designed in a way that debris decays very fast and that minimal debris goes up.” 

To understand the conflicting claims by India and NASA and how things work in space, Northeast Valley News spoke with Dr. Paul Weser, who has been teaching Geography at Scottsdale Community College for past 32 years.

“First off, the problem with any of these tests, or with any kind of satellite destruction is the debris and the amount of debris that’s left in orbit and becomes a potential risk to other spacecraft. So one thing we could say is their test was at a fairly low orbit. It was 100 to 200 hundred miles up. Typically, where a space shuttle used to fly. The International Space Station is situated higher. Typical orbits are 300 to 400 miles or so. So is there a possibility debris and risk, especially spacecraft going to or from the International Space Station, yes. “

Space debris or some call it space junk is becoming a growing concern for the astronauts since the late 20th century when human activity in the space has increased.

Weser recalled an example from the 1980’s that posed a potential risk of debris in space.

“They were doing a repair on the Hubble Space Telescope, I believe it was the Hubble, and a wrench or something to that effect was just let go by an astronaut. They track that wrench because everything in the orbit is traveling at around 15,000, 16,000 miles per hour so even something like that, even bolts or screws can become very, very risky to the thin shell around a spacecraft or a space station or something to that effect. Definitely, they’re gonna have to track this debris, get a signature radar and then track it,” Weser said.

When asked if India has now joined the exclusive group of countries or space powers (the U.S., Russia and China) which have the capability to blow apart the satellites orbiting the Earth, Weser said,

Yes, because they hit an object in space.”

“However, the Russians, the United States, and China, their capability is also for higher orbits, much further out. So they could go out hundreds of miles, thousands of miles above the surface,” Weser said.

“So this is definitely a much lower orbit technology. It’s not that they’re exclusive in the sense of they can go out and have a potential risk to other satellites from other countries that say geosynchronous orbit or something to that effect. The big concern always of any of these tests is again the risk to satellites in orbit and humans in orbit. That’s always the big risk.”

India’s anti-satellite test has also revived a debate over the militarization of space.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs posted on its website that “the tests were done after we had acquired the required degree of confidence to ensure its success, and reflects the intention of the government to enhance India’s national security.”

In its report over the space weapon test, The Washington Post noted that,

“While the vast majority of global defense budgets are still used to purchase conventional arms, experts are warning that space is increasingly becoming a new frontier for some of the world’s best-equipped militaries.”

“President Trump announced the creation of a U.S. Space Force last June, and China, India and other nations are also doubling down on defense-related space ambitions.”

Commenting on India’s antisatellite test “technological leap”, The New York Times noted,

“It has potentially ominous repercussions, accelerating the space race with China and destabilizing the uneasy balance of power between India and Pakistan, which are both armed with nuclear weapons. It could allow India essentially to blind an enemy by taking out its space-based communication and surveillance satellites.”

Pakistan, India’s longtime nuclear rival expressed serious concerns over India antisatellite test.

When asked what might be at stake for Pakistan after India’s test, Weser offered some insight.

“If Pakistan has a satellite that is a communication satellite or a weather satellite or something like that those are gonna be most likely at geosynchronous orbits, which are much further out. I would be skeptical at this point as to whether they have the capability to target something that’s 22,000 miles above the surface of the earth in geosynchronous. Even let’s say … It’s probably not, but if you’re talking about communications or weather satellites or any of those, they’re gonna be geosynchronous. However, there are lower orbit satellites, polar orbiting and others, that will pass over an area over time. And they’ll pass over and come back in different parts of the day, different areas of the sky. Those are still at 600 to 1,000 miles up,” Weser said.

“So again, this test still doesn’t show that they can get at those satellites. So maybe India will make a claim, I don’t know, but if I were Pakistan I’d be concerned that they have a technology to get into space. But I wouldn’t be concerned that they have the capability to knock it that out yet. ‘Cause if they’re gonna knock anything out they would have gone to a much higher orbit, so it wouldn’t ’cause problems with debris that you’re seeing at a lower orbit,” Weser said.