Satellite-killer test puts India in elite space club
Shishir Gupta and Sudhi Ranjan Sen
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
At a little over 11.10am Wednesday, a 13 metre-long, 19-ton missile took off from the Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Island launch complex off the coast of Odisha. Three minutes and 10 seconds later, it struck the 6,900mm-wide heart of a Microstat-R satellite — orbiting 268km above the earth — over the Bay of Bengal, blowing it to bits. India launched the satellite almost two months ago to the day, on January 29.
A little over an hour later, at 12.20 pm, after a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a rare address to the nation that with the success of Mission Shakti, India had become only the fourth member of an exclusive club of nations — with the US, Russia and China — to have anti-satellite missile capability.
Soon after the missile struck the satellite, Modi and national security adviser Ajit Doval were informed by Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) chief Satheesh Reddy and Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) chief K Sivan over the phone, using a pre-decided coded message.
Experts said the success of Mission Shakti demonstrates India’s ability to take down satellites using missiles; is a critical step in the development and trial of advanced ballistic missiles; and also means the country can protect its own satellites.
In election season, the achievement wasn’t without controversy, though. DRDO’s former chief VK Saraswat said the country has had the technology to make such missiles since the turn of the decade, but lacked the political will to do so. Union finance minister Arun Jaitley echoed that sentiment.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi congratulated the scientists behind the project in a tweet but mocked the PM, wishing him a happy World Theatre Day, and Opposition leaders Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress and Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M) saw it as a violation of the election commission’s (EC) model code of conduct that prevents governments from taking and announcing policy decisions that could influence voters.
The Election Commission of India has said it is studying Modi’s announcement to see if there was a violation of the code. An EC spokesperson said a committee of officers, headed by deputy election commissioner Sandeep Saxsena, has been asked to examine the issue.
Modi, and later the ministry of external affairs, was quick to assure the world that Mission Shakti was not directed against any country and that India had no intention of joining an arms race in outer space.
“In the journey of every nation there are moments that bring utmost pride and have a historic impact on generations to come. One such moment is today,” Modi said in his address to the nation, broadcast on television, radio and social media. “A short while ago, India shot down a LEO (low earth orbit) satellite by anti-satellite missile. It was conducted under Mission Shakti, which was completed in three minutes,” he said.
Modi had tweeted about his address to the nation in advance, saying he had an important message. “Do watch the address on television, radio or social media,” he said, causing a stir as people speculated on the contents of his message.
Mission Shakti was highly complex, “conducted at extremely high speed with remarkable precision. It shows the remarkable dexterity of India’s outstanding scientists and the success of our space programme,” Modi late said in a tweet. He congratulated “everyone” on the success of the mission. HT learns that the genesis of Mission Shakti goes back to 2014, shortly after Modi took over as Prime Minister, and that he asked Doval to go ahead with the development of an anti-satellite (A-SAT) missile.
DRDO chairman Reddy said, “We have mastered anti-satellite capability and we have today shown that we can hit satellites at long ranges with a few centimetres accuracy.”
Anti-satellite weapons allow for attacks on enemy satellites as well as providing a technology base for intercepting ballistic missiles. India has 49 satellites in space handling key communications, information, intelligence and navigation systems for a variety of uses, both civilian and military.
An anti-satellite weapon can leave the adversary crippled . “This weapon’s effect is not just on the battlefield. For instance, taking down a satellite can impair and destroy the banking, stock market, and broadcast systems of a country. Satellites used for snooping can be destroyed as well,” an officer who served with the Strategic Forces Command said on condition of anonymity, adding that “this is a cutting-edge counter-technology weapon.”
The final countdown for the test began on January 29, when a 744.4 kilogram satellite with 2,200mm solar panels and a 6900mm core was launched by ISRO. The Microstat-R satellite was a live one orbiting 268km above Earth in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The satellite was targeted by a three-stage ballistic missile with the killer vehicle having a kinetic warhead with a seeker which first searched and then locked on to the target. The LEO orbit is between 100-1,200km from Earth and Wednesday’s test, experts said, shows that India can target any satellite in a LEO just by changing the angle of the launcher. “The option of targeting a satellite is by using a kinetic warhead, a laser or electromagnetic radiation to jam the machine,” said a senior DRDO official.
The A-SAT comes under the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) unit, which comes under the NSA, who in turn reports to the PM.
After China conducted the first A-SAT test in January 2007, the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government examined the feasibility of India acquiring such a capability as this was the future of warfare but did not go ahead with it. India has been working for many years on anti-satellite capability. In 2010, then DRDO director Saraswat said that India possessed “all the building blocks necessary” to integrate an anti-satellite weapon to neutralise hostile satellites in low Earth and polar orbits.
Former ISRO chairman K Kasturirangan said he was proud of the achievement. “We are all proud that we have taken the next step in the space, a very critical, crucial and probably a very difficult step to have taken successfully.”
Blowing a satellite out of space is an extremely complex operation. For instance, in this case, the relative velocity of the satellite and the “kill-vehicle” was as high as 10km per second or 36,000km per hour. “The kill-vehicle did not have a warhead. It was a direct hit with an accuracy of few centimetres,” a senior official associated with the test said, adding “the biggest challenge for an anti-satellite weapon are sensors, the guidance system that will direct the kill-vehicle which will determine the accuracy of the hit.”
The kill-vehicle and all the sensors were developed in India.
China’s 2007 test created the largest orbital debris cloud in history, with more than 3,000 objects, according to the Secure World Foundation, a group that advocates sustainable and peaceful uses of outer space. Wednesday’s test created debris too, but the height of the test means that almost all of this will eventually degrade and re-enter the atmosphere as dust.
Members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hailed the achievement. “It is a proud moment for all Indians. I congratulate all the scientists involved with #MissionShakti and thank Prime Minister Shri @narendramodi for ensuring that India continues to safeguard the interest of its people and secures them on all fronts,” BJP president Amit Shah tweeted.
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