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 The Treaty is today called outdated and there are several loopholes that many countries today take advantage of like China did in 2007 and India did today.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.

India at Mars

Short version: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft successfully fired it’s Liquid Apogee Motor (LAM) today to correct its trajectory and also served as a test for the LAM which had been sleeping for about 298 days now whilst the spacecraft sped in the general direction of where Mars would be. As of 9:30 AM today, MOM is in Mars’ sphere of gravitational influence, it test fired and trajectory corrected at 2:30 PM today. Long version below.

It was 2:30 PM today when ISRO tweeted that the MOM may currently be firing its LAM to perform a test to check if it’s still working and also execute a very small trajectory correction so that the spacecraft will be set up to park into Mars orbit come the morning of September 24. About 15 minutes after that, ISRO announced to the world that they had fired the engines successfully for nearly 4 seconds.

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Image: ISRO flashed this image on Twitter with the caption, “Test Firing of Liquid Engine: Guided by wisdom, Executed by youth”. link to the orignial pic

I was really sceptical about ISRO’s prospects of doing a Mars mission. They worked really hard and pulled through extra shifts to ensure that a spacecraft would be ready in time for the Mars launch window in 2013. Little news items were strewn around showing progress that ISRO made that showed that ISRO was working towards the goal of launching in 2013 but nothing quite indicated that they were ready to launch. As the launch window approached, they quickly got the spacecraft off Earth on a smaller launch vehicle than one would anticipate being used for a Mars mission anywhere else in the world.

The modified PSLV, a workhorse adaptable launch vehicle performed excellently delivering the spacecraft to its intended orbit. The spacecraft then performed orbit raising manoeuvres and slowly headed out towards the heliocentric orbit. As the spacecraft pushed off towards Mars, my skepticism slowly waned away.

For a technology demonstrator mission, the most critical part of the mission is to show that the fundamental building blocks work and can function. With today’s LAM firing, I think that ISRO proved a very crucial component of the mission design. Skepticism kept me away from posting anything here for a very long time. I have to say that I am now very hopeful that we can do this. I seek nothing more than a gentle nudge that puts the spacecraft in an elliptical orbit around Mars.

Critics of this mission have been plenty and have criticised each component of this mission design. ISRO has answered its critics thus far by action, something I think that many Indians would do well to ape.

First Report on Space Tourism in India

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as https://parallelspirals.blogspot.com. I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on April 5, 2011. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

Clark Lindsey posted on his RLV and Space Transport blog yesterday about this first report on space tourism in India. The report is brought out by the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (UPES) and McGill University. I had a cursory glance through this report and given below are my thoughts about this report.

The Report is done by a University (UPES) which you would not equate with space. It is done by the Center for Aviation Studies and released by a Secretary in the Civil Aviation Ministry. Again, not really showing involvement from anyone in the space business in India today. This makes it a tad difficult to understand their background with relation to this subject.

The Report itself is in an interesting format. It puts out the condition in the US and compares the same with the Indian situation and draws unfortunate parallels. For example, it talks about building spaceports merely by extending airports. It even talks about DGCA playing a role similar to what the FAA does in the USA.

The Report is perhaps a first that is publicly released and perhaps lays the foundation for in-depth topic specific reports on various aspects of space tourism. There have been interesting suggestions for space tourism vehicles based out of India – as an example Earth2Orbit’s Sushmita Mohanty suggested developing the Space ReEntry Experiment vehicle(SRE)  as a space tourism vehicle out of India. Such bold suggestions were not studied or considered during the course of this report. It also depended rather heavily on the US scenario and did not envisage anything from the Indian perspective which could have made it a more worthwhile report rather than trying to make it an Indian copy of a US model.

India has many interesting alternatives. Entrepreneurial companies like Team Indus and Earth2Orbit are sprouting in India which could develop and improve SREs or even totally new ventures developing rockets and crafts that could handle the technology aspect. A Space Transportation Authority could be setup coming out of the current Launch Authorisation Board from within ISRO. There is already an Indian expecting to fly in SpaceShipTwo.

All in all, I think that the report is an important first step which was not bold enough and forward thinking enough but which I hope pushes many more studies and public interest in the idea of space tourism.