NEW DELHI: India has become the fourth nation after the US, Russia and China that has the capability to launch missiles to destroy satellites in low-Earth orbit. With the successful test-launch of the anti-satellite (ASAT) missile and destruction of the target today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a televised national address said India has crossed an important threshold in demonstrating its capability to defend its space assets.
This would be akin to India conducting a surgical strike in space, say scientists.
India had 48 orbiting satellites till recently – the largest such constellation in the Indo-Pacific region. They need to be protected as these are “sitting ducks”, according to experts. Today’s Mission Shakti showed that India was able to actively kill a satellite orbiting at an altitude of 300 kilometres.
While PM Modi did not mention the name of the ‘target’ satellite, this was possibly the satellite called Microsat-R which was launched at an altitude of 277 km by a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) on January 24 this year. The satellite weighed about 740 kilograms.
During its launch, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman K Sivan had told NDTV that the satellite was for defence research.
India has had the capability to conduct anti-satellite missile tests for at least 10 years, said a senior scientist of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) who asked not to be named.
Bringing down a satellite in high altitude is not easy since the satellite would have been traveling at a velocity of hundreds of kilometres per hour; to accurately target such a small speck is a big challenge. It is like shooting a bullet at another bullet from a distance of 300 km.
Nations worry that such tests will cause space debris that poses problems for other satellites. There was much criticism of an ASAT missile test by China in 2007 as it scattered hundreds of pieces of space debris.
India’s test done at an altitude of 300 km may not leave space debris for too long, said G Madhavan Nair, former chairman of ISRO.
In 2012, when India conducted its first test of the Agni-5 missile from Dr Abdul Kalam Island, formerly Wheeler Island, the country has had a capability to kill satellites. The Agni-5 is an inter-continental ballistic missile with a range of over 5,000 km and the then chef of DRDO, VK Saraswat, had confirmed that it can be used both to launch satellites and bring down satellites if required in times of emergency.
In all probability, India has used a new missile system that can target fast-moving satellites and bring them down. India had already demonstrated the capability by launching missile interception tests where an incoming missile was brought down in exo-atmospheric conditions.
In an exclusive interview with NDTV on May 29, 2018, former DRDO chief S Christopher had confirmed that “India is making anti-satellite weapons”.
Anti-satellite weapons are considered an ultimate weapon since it can easily cripple a country as the global economy is so heavily dependent on satellites, from running banks and ATMs to communication links.