In the latest move for India’s rapidly expanding space program, the government announced on March 27th that they had successfully shot down a satellite in space. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a televised announcement to address the test, claiming that India had now established itself as a space power joining only the U.S., Russia and China in conducting anti-satellite tests per Reuters. The missile was fired from Odisha in East India and collided with a satellite in low-Earth orbit 300km away, Modi stated. It is indeed a significant step in space capability for India, which has increased its focus on becoming a space power with a probe sent to Mars in 2014 and plans for a manned space flight in 2022. However, the timing of the announcement has caught few by surprise as an upcoming general election has Modi’s Hindu nationalist party attempting to highlight the government’s achievements. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the test raised concerns about the outer-space security environment and the debris that will be left after the test.
The Foreign Ministry of India issued a statement saying; “The capability achieved through the anti-satellite missile test provides credible deterrence against threats to our growing space-based assets from long range missiles, and proliferation in the types and numbers of missiles.” However, others have expressed concern over this sort of test which has not taken place since China destroyed a satellite in 2007. A U.S. based satellite imaging company called Planet issued a statement; “Space should be used for peaceful purposes, and destroying satellites on orbit severely threatens the long term stability of the space environment for all space operators.”
Frans von der Dunk, a space law expert at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, outlined the legality of the test to Reuters; “Unfortunately, there is no binding international legal rule (yet) which prohibits the wanton creation of space debris.” Despite this, he proposes that this may still be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty 1967 “since they [other nations] might well suffer harmful interference with their own satellite operations.”
In all, the test indicates that space is increasingly becoming a security realm, despite the best efforts of the Outer Space Treaty which envisions parties exploring space for peaceful purposes. The importance of satellite imaging to military intelligence explains the apprehensions that India may have over the protection of its space assets. The issue of space junk is also one which India argues will be solved by the low orbit of the satellite. G Satheesh Reddy, the head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation told Reuters that “The debris is moving right now. How much debris, we are trying to work out, but our calculations are it should be dying down within 45 days,” in an attempt to allay fears of interference with other satellites.
The fundamental issue with the project from an international point of view is the lack of consultation or notification from India’s side. The launch was reportedly detected by the U.S. but the lack of discussion with other space powers, in particular, raises the issue that space projects will continue to become confidential military ones rather than operations which encourage cooperation in the use of outer space. The very military nature of the test led to this secrecy and the scattering of unidentified space junk in orbit. As acting head of the Pentagon Patrick Shanahan responded to the test; “We all live in space. Let’s not make it a mess.”