On the 27th of March, India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) successfully tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile, shooting down one of its own satellites and becoming the fourth country to do so, firmly establishing itself as a burgeoning space power. With China and Russia now heavily invested in extra-terrestrial warfare and the US announcing the Space Force as the fifth branch of its military, it is becoming clear that conflict in space is a very real strategic possibility.
But this action was not without criticism, with NASA chief administrator Jim Bridenstine highlighting the risks posed by the test to the International Space Station. Despite India’s promises to the contrary, some 24 fragments of their satellite larger than half a centimetre in diameter ended up in orbit above the ISS, where they may be pulled down by the Earth’s gravity into the path of the space station. Half a centimetre may sound insignificant, but objects in low orbit can achieve speeds exceeding 28,000 kilometres an hour, turning even the smallest specks of debris into dangerous projectiles, as the crew of the ISS discovered last year.
It can be speculated that the DRDO was unduly hasty in its testing of an ASAT, largely due to two factors. The first is that India has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, having surpassed China last year, and so is keen to establish itself on the world stage (and by extension, the off-world stage). The second is India’s upcoming election, where prime minister Narendra Modi, controversial in some circles, is seeking to retain leadership. A show of Indian technological achievement could be just the thing to sway voters before a potentially contentious election.
But is this test really a threat to the ISS, or even future space endeavours? Some commentators labelled it as such, invoking the Kessler Syndrome, a hypothetical scenario where a density of space debris is reached that pieces begin colliding with one another and further multiplying as they break apart, resulting in the exponential growth of a sky-spanning field of orbital hazards. This would effectively leave us incapable of launching spacecraft, thus trapping us on an Earth of changing climates and dwindling resources. But in truth, the impact of India’s test is a drop in the bucket. There are over 500,000 trackable pieces of space junk in orbit, and many more too small to track. By far the largest contributors to this problem are Russia, the US and China, contributing a combined total of more than 16,000 pieces of debris, and that’s just what can be attributed to them with certainty. India, meanwhile, is in a distant sixth place, with 202 pieces of space junk to their name. Perhaps the established space powers should worry about their own backyards, before piling on the new guy.