India conducts an Anti Satellite Missile Test

This article was originally posted here

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.



Shared – Podcast #479: Becoming a Digital Minimalist

Brett McKay has a podcast, Podcast #479: Becoming a Digital Minimalist on The Art of Manliness with Cal Newport on digital minimalism. The concept surrounds the idea of not having social media in walled gardens like Facebook, Google etc. These are only trying to rob our attention and make money from them. These have an adverse impact on us just like fast food, cigarettes etc.

I am dealing with my own smartphone addiction and might get the book in the last week of this month on Audible.

NISAR will look at the Antarctic

Alexandra Witze writes for Nature about a decision relating to NASA and ISRO joint mission called NASA ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) decision to point at the Antarctic rather than the Arctic.

The decision is based on the fact that the Europe’s Sentinel satellite is covering the Arctic region. Also, SAR satellites are built such that they point either to the North or the South pole. Hence a call was taken on which Pole the NISAR would be facing.

Khagol Mandal

The Wire has a nice write-up about Khagol Mandal.

I grew up in Mumbai and had heard of Khagol Mandal on my visits to Nehru Planetarium but never had the courage to ask my Dad to go for one of their all night camp until I was in college. I attended a few of their talks and Wednesday meetings.

However, given that the Internet was full of American websites I too felt the need for splitting the clubs along the science and engineering line. Since, I was more interested in the science vs engineering divide, I started SEDS India in 2004.

Reading the article, I wonder how different life would have been had I started a Rocketry Hub in Khagol Mandal rather than wasting precious time setting up SEDS India.

Watch “Where in the world is it easiest to get rich? | Harald Eia | TEDxOslo” on YouTube

From the text: “Counter intuitive as it may sound high taxes, generous welfare states and strong unions make it a better environment for people who wants to earn huge amounts of money than free markets, low taxes and minimal government”

Sharing this talk since it is a contrary position to what I have experienced in my life.

The Mars Orbiter Mission story

Imran Khan has directed a short movie on the Mars Orbiter Mission and is now available on YouTube (trailer).

The video helped me relive September 24, 2014 again. On that day, I watched Mars Orbit Insertion from Mumbai while my fiance (and now my wife) watched with her sister in Kerala. On that day, she didn’t understand the importance of the crucial Mars Orbit Mission maneuver. But, she got it only today after watching the video with me today.

Must watch whether you follow space and definitely if you have a partner with whom you want to communicate the enthusiasm for space exploration.

Revati

Revati is Zeta Piscium. It is the “star” under which my daughter was born. So, I seem to have a mental filter that catches that phrase in Twitter’s flowing timeline. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society had posted there on the International Astronomical Union (IAU) naming a few surface features on Charon, Pluto’s moon. She had also linked to the IAU press release on the same.

They had named a crater on Charon, Revati. The press release mentioned that the feature Revati was named after a character in the epic, Mahabharata where she was a time traveller. The excerpt is below:

Revati Crater

I immediately searched on Google for the story of Revati. Emily, meanwhile, emailed one of the contacts mentioned in the press release to ask the source story of the name. My Google search led to the interesting story of Revati.

The story of Revati seems to be straight out of science fiction. She is the daughter of Kakudmi who seems to have ruled a kingdom half under the sea. Her father travels to meet Brahma to seek advice on a suitable husband for his daughter. While there, they listen to a small musical performance. At the end as Kakudmi asks Brahma to choose from a list Brahma states that most of the people suggested would be dead as as they waited there, 27 mahayugas have passed and suggested that she marry Balarama, Krishna’s brother when they return. Does this reference time dilation? When they return, humans are much smaller than them. Does this reference the evolutionary process?

I found the best narrative of the same on another blog, along with an interesting after comment. The comment is below:

Revati Time Traveller

In the meanwhile, Emily got the references and this is more fascinating reading. The book is Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy by Richard L Thompson.

I am a skeptic of the reinterpretations of past treatises using modern astronomy but am equally fascinated by these comparative studies of astronomical treatises of the present and the past and enriched by myths with science fiction elements involved.