India conducts an Anti Satellite Missile Test

Pictures released of the Anti Satellite Missile Test conducted by India on March 27, 2019. Image Credit: Shiv Aroor/LiveFist

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced today that India had successfully carried out an Anti Satellite Missile Test (ASAT). The mission was code named Mission Shakti. A missile was launched from the Dr. Abdul Kalam Island Launch Complex off the coast of Orissa and hit an Indian satellite orbiting at 300 km. The hit was successful.

It is to be said that this is an important technology demonstration on the part of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It is a capability that only three other countries in the world have – USA, Russia and China. Of these, China seems to be the reason that India accelerated the development of the ASAT. China did the ASAT test in January 2007 by destroying a satellite in a 800 km orbit. The US responded to this with tests of its own in 2010 by destroying a satellite in a 300 km orbit.

India’s response was a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) test it performed in 2012 where an incoming missile was intercepted by an interceptor missile. DRDO which had developed the said capability said that it had the building blocks to test the ASAT by 2014. However, it is believed that then UPA Government under Dr. Manmohan Singh did not give the DRDO the go-ahead for this project. It is believed that India feared further restrictions on technology transfer from the US as the basis for not giving the project the go-ahead. It is believed that the go-ahead came after the Narendra Modi government when it came into power in 2014.

It is essential to seperate the civilian and defence space programmes. India did this in 2008 in response to the India-US Civilian Nuclear Deal. Although ISRO launches defence satellites into orbit, it does not intend the end purpose of such a mission be purely military. DRDO developed and launched the target satellite and launched it on a PSLV-C44 this year in January.

With this test, India has a slight advantage over China. Although, China has a ASAT capability it is widely believed that it does not have the capability yet to destroy incoming missiles provided by a BMD programme.

In today’s test India seems to have pranced around all the international treaties that look to prevent the weaponization of space. The concept took root in a 1969 treaty called the Outer Space Treaty. The Treaty is today called outdated and there are several loopholes that many countries today take advantage of like China did in 2007 and India did today. The US has been working to ban anti-satellite tests since 2010 but has failed in building any consensus on the subject. India seems to have conducted the test to ensure that it slips through the door before it closes, metaphorically.

There is a lot of political discussion on whether the timing of the announcement of the mission by the Prime Minister today is a violation of the Model Code of Conduct which is in force for the 2019 National Elections. But, that is for the Election Commission to look at. I do not see any need to do this so urgently unless the anti-satellite test ban were to come into force some time in the near future and India had an inkling as to the timing of the same. The simplest explanation is that the mission was ready and the go-ahead was given by the Government thinking of it as a matter of national defence and prioritised the decision over the Elections.

There is also worry of the creation of space debris which would be left behind by the satellite that was destroyed by the missile today. However, they have the US example of 2010 which also destroyed a satellite in a similar orbit and which lasted in orbit for about 3 years. Against this, stands the Chinese example whose destroyed satellite in the 800 km orbit is still believed to be in orbit. We are given to understand that the debris would eventually get pulled down by Earth’s gravity and will burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere before causing any significant damage. This matter is debatable.

All in all, given the timeline and the current available knowledge, India responsibly tested its capability keeping multiple issues in mind – space debris, Outer Space Treaty and current regional geopolitics.

More reading

The Ministry of External Affairs posted a Frequently Asked Questions section on its website on today’s test. Curiosly, this is not on the Ministry of Defence or the DRDO website. It has useful information and the official version of what transpired.

LiveFist – Shiv Aroor is a defence journalist who maintains a defence blog. His writeups cover most of the technical details and the defence organisational intrigue that was involved in today’s mission. The post linked here also has multiple links that are worth following up on if you’re interested in more details of the ASAT.

There is a 2012 India Today article being circulated on Twitter claiming that India had build capability required for today’s test in 2012 itself. There is significant difference between capability and technology demonstration. And, I believe it’s always a good idea to test a technology before use, if you can.

Vasudevan Mukunth wrote in The Wire about the Mission Shakti, which also analyses the technicalities of the Mission in detail which is also a good overview if you only want to understand what this whole hoopla is about.

The South Asia Satellite

The ISRO will launch the GSLV tomorrow carrying the South Asian Satellite on board. ISRO calls it the GSAT-9. It will carry Indian transponders that will be used by India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The Wire has a short video describing the significance of the launch and some prior history.

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GSAT-9 seen with the two halves of the payload fairing of the GSLV-F09. Image Credit: ISRO

I think this launch will be important for India for two things. One is to prove, further, the reliability of the GSLV as a launch vehicle capable of regularly delivering communication satellites into orbit. This improves with each launch. As this reliability improves, it brings in business in communication satellite launches as well as reduces India’s dependence on foreign launch vehicles. The second is to improve availability of transponders for users on the ground. Indian transponders can thence be leased and commercialized after meeting India’s requirements.

It would be interesting to see if the use of the transponders by some of our neighboring countries provides them with sufficiently good experience that they will continue using Indian transponders or even ask for multiple transponders. This would make it important again to improve the reliability of the GSLV and the GSLV Mk-III to put enough communication satellites into orbit to service these future requirements. Could then India wean off South East Asian countries from American and European transponders to Indian ones?

Interestingly, this satellite also carries with it an electric propulsion experiment. This satellite is expected to stay in orbit for 12 years. Communication satellites usually  last around 10 years. They have to carry as much fuel for what is known as station keeping. The satellites begin to drift from orbit like kites that we fly. We tug at the kite to keep it at one place and prevent it from drifting too far away. The satellite has no strings attached and hence the satellite will have to use fuel on-board to reach its orbit as well as to stay there.

Using electric propulsion completely for doing station keeping would reduce the amount of fuel the satellite would have to carry. This means we can add more transponders which in turn would mean fewer satellites could meet the requirements. But, this is an experiment and hence ISRO is still carrying the fuel it normally would had the electric propulsion system had not been there. I am also delighted to hear that the GSAT-20 mission flying next year will also carry an electric propulsion system on board. The lessons we learn from the experiment on the GSAT-9 would be incorporated.

Intercontinental Space Weather Balloon Network

I read on Spaceweather.com today morning about an intercontinental network of space weather balloon released by the website in collaboration with Earth to Sky. The data is released on the website.

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The Intercontinental Space Weather Balloon Network. Image Credit: Spaceweather.com

 

It would be lovely to get a few balloons from India as well besides the ones being launched from TIFR’s National Balloon Facility in Hyderabad. It would be a fun lear

Satish Dhawan

On the day prior to PSLV’s launch, FactorDaily has a near 2 minute video on the man who succeeded Vikram Sarabhai, laid the foundations for India’s rocketry programme including the PSLV, started the Earth observation and communications satellite programme and after whom India’s space port, Sriharikota is named – Satish Dhawan.

Space Mining

A company in the US, Planetary Resources has started making efforts to mine asteroids or large meteorites in space. I believe Indian companies, especially mining companies which are having a hard time getting government clearances must look at space mining quite seriously. This would be a chance to save the environments in the locations that these mines are located on Earth without moving people out and also will push mineral exploration into space. Also, by the time that they get clearances to mine in India, they could probably build, launch, mine and return back to Earth with minerals and possibly sell them on Earth. This is a good possible study for the MBA types to find out which is cheaper – waiting and getting clearances or launching two spacecrafts into orbit for the purpose of asteroid/meteorite mining.

Wikipedia’s article on Asteroid mining has this to say on the possibilites of minerals present on asteroids and meteorites:

These include gold, iridium, silver, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium,ruthenium and tungsten for transport back to Earth; iron, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, aluminium, and titanium for construction; water and oxygen to sustain astronauts; as well as hydrogen, ammonia, and oxygen for use as rocket propellant.

Given this range of options, I thought I should also design a bare bones, un-researched article on one asteroid mining scenario.

Tugcraft

Rudimentary Asteroid mining scenario

My concept works on two spacecraft scenario. One is a longer lasting Tug-craft. The second is a frequent Earth returning Mine-craft.

Earth based asteroid monitoring systems will be used for the twin purposes of keeping an eye on incoming asteroids that could hit Earth called Near Earth Objects as well as potential targets for a tug-craft in orbit. Looking at timelines of spacecraft that cater to the International Space Station or that go to the Moon, we currently can get a spacecraft into Low Earth Orbit and then from there to a specified target (between the ISS to the Moon) in 1 to 5 days. We can also decently estimate their trajectories and velocities to get a handle on where we should send our tug-craft to intercept the asteroids/meteorites and also whether we can send them to intercept points in the time available to us.

For the purposes of this idea, let’s consider that an asteroid passes near the Moon. A tug-craft could either be launched from Earth or a spacecraft already in orbit can be redirected to the target. Let’s say that the tug-craft reaches the intercept point in 5 days. As the asteroid approaches, the tug-craft makes adjustments to it’s orbit, makes more precise calculation of the incoming asteroid’s velocity with respect to itself and begins mapping the mineralogical possibilities that the asteroid/meteorite offers. The tug-craft then uses tugs (metallic or composite rope like structures) to drill and latch onto and slowdown the speeding asteroid using its on-board thruster. It also uses on-board remote sensing instruments and spectrometers to estimated the mineralogical content and location on the asteroid. In my example, I provide for three tugs to pull the asteroid into a mining-parking orbit with the tug-craft dictating the orbit.

This itself would require a minimum of two test flights and a few more flights to improve and  perfect asteroid catching techniques. It would be something akin to catching a bullet. It would require continuous improvements or kaizen method to get better and more cost effective in the longer run. But there will be millions of objects to test it on even in the Near Earth space.

The mine-craft’s work is a bit more straight forward, given that the target’s location is known. It only uses data from the tug-craft to understand location of the deposits and begins to mine the asteroid. The raw minerals are collected and returned to Earth. Earth-based mining techniques may not work in space and may require re-working the mining design. The recent launch of expandable spacecrafts would come in handy to increase the amount of material the spacecrafts can bring back to Earth.

The only part of this that we have not worked out fully with is tugging the asteroid and mining the asteroid. Test flights would be needed to test out both systems in parts of space where it keeps away from Earth during such tests. I think these systems could be ready to for deployment after research in the next 5-10 years.

 

Geography

Geography is a subject that I was deeply interested in during the first decade of my life. I got engrossed in it and aced in it in Class V and just as simply left it to pursue my interest in Astronomy.

Geography literally translates as “drawing of this world”. Representing the world around us on paper – in maps seems to have been the end result of a process. Studying the world around us, looking at the types of soil, the kind of physical features around us, looking at representing human settlements and representing them so that they may be used to understand topography, identify good places to build human settlements and also as a way of going from one place to another.

Applying this data, various maps were made – maps of topographies, political and physical maps, maps for soil etc. This data is now available via proprietary media like Google Maps and Survey of India and is also being crowd-collected again through initiatives such as OpenStreetMap.

I’ve always wondered of what use would it be in our daily life and how rarely we use this data to understand the world around us. We only mug Geography in school in order to obtain certain grades but don’t understand how to use it in our day-to-day life to understand the world around us.

As in all cases, there is hope. There are groups of people around the world who are collecting data about their surroundings by setting up personal weather stations and by mapping roads, buildings and places of public interest. This data is being re-collected again by the public because it is currently closed behind private and government silos. But, as in all other things we learned in school, its application to make better decisions in our life or even simple day-to-day things seems a little far away.

Mumbai. January 3, 2016.

New Horizons historic meeting with Pluto

A spacecraft from Earth has now been to all the 9 planets that we knew as a kid. New Horizons became the spacecraft to cover all the planets that we knew as a kid on July 14, 2015. Our view of Pluto has changed a lot since Clyde Tombaugh spotted the minor planet in 1930. In January 2006, when the New Horizons spacecraft launched to Pluto from Cape Canaveral in the US Pluto was still a planet! In August of that year, Pluto was “demoted” to being a dwarf planet. The world (scientists and people alike) revolted against the move.

At the time that New Horizons approached Pluto it still is a dwarf planet.

Pluto as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft on its flyby of the planet, Pluto. Image Credit: NASA

Pluto as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft on its flyby of the planet, Pluto. Image Credit: NASA

New Horizons successfully executed the flyby and is now in science mode taking scientific data that will be beamed back to Earth. Some of the lower resolution data that New Horizons is beaming back to Earth is now being publicly and scientifically analysed whilst we wait as this data teaches us about the dwarf planet, Pluto.