On March 27, 2019 India conducted an anti-satellite missile test codenamed Mission Shakti, from the Dr A P J Abdul Kalam Island launch complex formerly known as Wheeler Island, off the coast of Odisha. This was a technological mission carried out by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The satellite used in Mission Shakti was not identified other than it was one of India’s existing satellites intercepted at an altitude of 300 km.
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Failed ASAT test attempt
According to U.S. government sources with knowledge of military intelligence assessments, the United States observed a failed Indian anti-satellite intercept test attempt in February. The solid-fueled interceptor missile used during that test “failed after about 30 seconds of flight.”
It is unclear if the February 12 failed test attempted relied on the same missile and interceptor as the successful March 27 test. According to one U.S. government source, the Indian side had notified the United States of its intent to carry out an experimental weapon test in early February, but without confirming that it would be an anti-satellite test. “They gave us a vague heads up,” the source said.
The first failed Indian test, however, provided enough information for U.S. military intelligence to conclude that New Delhi was attempting an anti-satellite test using a new kind of direct-ascent kinetic interceptor.
Claim disputed by DRDO
The US military claim of a failed Indian ASAT test in February, a month prior to Mission Shakti is disputed by DRDO. As per DRDO electronic target was used for trail instead of actual target, which was successful. DRDO flight tested a high speed interceptor missile from a defence facility off Odisha coast in February. The indigenously developed missile capable of destroying enemy weapons at high altitude was fired against an electronic target in salvo mode from the Abdul Kalam Island at about 11.10 am.
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In an automated operation, the Prithvi Defence Vehicle (PDV) interceptor missile, which was kept fully ready, took-off once the computer system gave the necessary command for lift-off. The interceptor guided by high accuracy inertial navigation system and supported by a redundant micro navigation system moved towards the estimated point of the interception. The heat shield ejected after the missile crossed atmosphere and with the help of infrared seeker, the system moved for interception.
The missile had a smooth take off from the launching complex-IV of the test facility. After a good cross over, it went off. Since an electronic target was used for the test instead of an actual target, the crossover validated the trial.
According to Dr. T.S. Kelso tracking orbital element sets at CelesTrak, Dr Marco Langbroek, tracking Spy Satellites from SatTrackCam Leiden (Cospar 4353) satellite tracking station located at Leiden, the Netherlands and consultant on Space Situational Awareness issues to the Space Security Center of the Royal Dutch Air Force and an engineer working at the Dutch Space Agency the satellite could have been “MICROSAT-R, in a 260 x 282 km, 89.9 deg orbit ascending over NOTAM area at ~0530 UTC, within the 0430-0830 UTC window. It should have been operational, facilitating tracking.”
My best guess at this point would be MICROSAT-R, in a 260 x 282 km, 89.9 deg orbit. Would have been ascending over NOTAM area at ~0530 UTC, within the 0430-0830 UTC window. It should have been operational, facilitating tracking. pic.twitter.com/FsNPrSFHkv
— T.S. Kelso (@TSKelso) March 27, 2019
NORAD ID: 43947
International Code: 2019-006A
Perigee: 267.4 km
Apogee: 288.7 km
Period: 89.9 minutes
Semi major axis: 6649 km
Launch date: January 24, 2019
Source: India (IND)
Launch site: SRIHARIKOTA (SRI)
Microsat-R (2019-006A), is a 740 kg Indian military satellite launched two months earlier, on 24 January 2019, on PLSV-C44 from Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) or Sriharikota Range (SHAR), a rocket launch centre operated by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) located in Andhra Pradesh. Microsat-R is an imaging satellite meant for military use for providing high resolution photo of the Earth’s surface.
Accordingly they were also able to determine that the test must have happened near 5:40 UT (27 March 2019). There are only two Indian satellites that fit an orbital altitude of 300 km: Microsat-R (2019-006A) and Microsat-TD (2018-004T). Of these, Microsat-R was in a very low orbit (roughly 260 x 285 km). It would also pass right over Abdul Kalam Island around 5:42 UT on 27 March 2019.
A Maritime Area Warning for “Hazardous operations” was given out before the test, which in hindsight was likely related to the test:
HYDROPAC 955/19 NORTHERN INDIAN OCEAN. BAY OF BENGAL. INDIA. DNC 03. 1. HAZARDOUS OPERATIONS 0430Z TO 0830Z DAILY 27 AND 30 MAR IN AREA BOUND BY 20-48.06N 087-02.24E, 18-07.27N 086-25.03E, 01-46.62N 087-30.52E, 02-57.91N 093-50.49E, 18-33.79N 088-46.21E, 20-48.95N 087-06.99E. 2. CANCEL THIS MSG 300930Z MAR 19.// Authority: NAVAREA VIII 248/19 221002Z MAR 19. Date: 222130Z MAR 19 Cancel: 30093000 Mar 19
Based on the Warning is plotted on a map an elongated conical hazard area fitting an object in a polar orbit with the tip exactly touching Abdul Kalam Island along the track of Microsat-R.
The fit shows that the intercept might have occurred near 5:40 UT, give or take a few minutes, at 283 km altitude while Microsat-R was northbound moving towards Abdul Kalam Island. Microsat-R was launched by PLSV-C44 on 24 January 2019, ostensibly as a military earth observation satellite. The satellite was initially in a 240 x 300 km orbit but maneuvered into a more circular, less eccentric 260 x 285 km late February.
History of ASAT tests
With Mission Shakti anti-satellite missile test, India joins a very small number of countries who have shown to have ASAT capabilities: the USA, Russia, and China. The test will certainly cause uneasiness with several countries and provoke diplomatic reactions and condemnation. This is technology many countries do not like to see proliferate, and testing ASAT weapons in space is widely seen as irresponsible, because of the large number of debris particles it generates on orbit, debris that can be a threat to other satellites. Our modern society is highly reliant on satellite technologies, so any threat to satellites (either from ASAT test debris or by deliberate ASAT targeting) is a serious threat.
1985 US Solwind P78-1 solar laboratory destruction
The US had previously demonstrated an ASAT capability with a weather satellite just like China did but with a missile off an F-15. Before the Cold War was over, on 13 Sept 1985, the US used an ASM-135 to impact Solwind P78-1 solar laboratory 326 miles above the earth. The most of the resulting 285 pieces quickly reentered the atmosphere. While the event was a strategic demonstration, the USAF had to complete the test before the Congressional Test Ban on Anti-Satellite weapons. The international community was worried about this event but in 1985 fewer countries and companies had orbiting satellites. The political statement was there, but the danger to orbiting satellites other than the target was nil.
2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test
The space domain changed as we knew it on 11 Jan 2007 when China intentionally destroyed the Fengyun 1C weather satellite. A missile impacted the satellite creating the largest orbital debris event in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) history, with more than 5,500 pieces of debris. Fengyun 1C was impacted at 537 miles above the earth’s surface, and an estimated 5,000 number of pieces from that event were still orbiting in space in 2013.
In April 2011, debris from the Chinese test passed just 6 km away from the International Space Station. The international community decried China’s ‘reckless behavior’ that every space-faring country will be concerned with for decades but had little recourse. The Outer Space Treaty, signed by 105 countries, only bans weapons of mass destruction in space, not the conventional weapon China used. Lawfully, China did nothing wrong, but this act made space more dangerous for everyone.
Operation Burnt Frost
These two events were the strategic impetus to Operation BURNT FROST. USA-193 was the cornerstone of the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), a $5B endeavor to build a “technologically audacious” generation of new spy satellites. It became the most spectacular and expensive failure in the history of American spy satellites. The prime contractor knew the lofty technological goals for the satellite were not achievable. The satellite’s requirements were numerous, as various intelligence and military services competed to influence the design. Real estate on a satellite was hard to acquire, and military planners needed to optimize each cubic inch. USA-193 was launched in December 2006 and almost immediately lost contact with ground stations.
Two months later, China destroyed Fengyun 1C.
On 20 Feb 2008 at 10:26 am, USA-193 was destroyed in orbit by an SM-3 missile from the USS Lake Erie (CG70). PARCS (AN/FPQ-16 Perimeter Acquisition Radar Attack Characterization System) augmented crew was given the job to identify the biggest piece of debris, but the amount of debris was overwhelming. The biggest piece of debris was important as it was the fuel canister loaded with hydrazine, the propellant to move USA-193 around. If this fuel canister survived reentry it would cause a natural disaster depending on where it landed.
The system alarms got more rampant as the breakup settled out into a sort of debris orbit that space surveillance units would deal with for days. The destruction happened a mere 153 miles from the earth’s surface. Within 48 hours, most of the debris reentered the atmosphere. All the remaining debris from USA-193 reentered within 40 days. No piece was large enough to survive re-entry.
A DRDO-developed Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Interceptor Missile successfully engaged an Indian orbiting target satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in a ‘Hit to Kill’ mode. The interceptor missile was a three-stage missile with two solid rocket boosters. Marine Police of the Coastal Security Group (CSG) of Tamil Nadu has retrieved a part of BrahMos missile that washed ashore on Panaikulam seashore in Ramanathapuram district on the day of the test. The local fishermen had noticed the cylindrical object and had alerted the authorities
Timeline of Mission Shakti
Below is the timeline of India’s anti-satellite missile test as reported by NewsX.
- Detection of the satellite at 11:08 hrs IST
- Classification of the satellite as enemy satellite at 11:08:30 hrs
- Clearance to destroy command at 11:08:30
- Missile Lift-off at 11:09:30 hrs
- Missile First stage separation at 45 km height 11:10:45 hrs
- Missile second stage separation at 110 km height at 11:11:17 hrs
- IIR seeker lock-on to the target satellite at 11:12:10 hrs
- Destruction of target at 11:15 hrs
All previous three ASAT events could be called reckless, but the closer to earth the impact the quicker the resulting debris is out of the orbital regime. The US and Russia own more than 85% of the debris mass in LEO because most of the debris are large mass objects such as rocket bodies and rocket stages.
In the case of Mission Shakti, because of the low altitude of less than 300 km of the target satellite MICROSAT-R, the debris threat will be limited (but not zero). Few satellites orbit at this altitude (the ISS for example orbits over 100 km higher). The vast majority of debris generated will quickly re-enter into the earth atmosphere, most of it within only a few weeks.
Previous ASAT tests have shown that a few debris pieces will be ejected into higher orbits, so even at this low altitude the danger of such a test is not zero. Nevertheless, the Indian government seems to have learned from the outcry following China’s 2007 test, and the Ministry of External Affairs in their FAQ on the test have specifically pointed out the lower altitude of the intercept target and the lower risk stemming from it.
Militarisation of Space
In the backdrop of India’s anti-satellite missile test Mission Shakti, representatives from 25 countries around the world are meeting in Geneva, Switzerland to formulate international laws to prevent space-based conflict. While India’s ASAT test was a strategic demonstration, the timing of the test also indicates a pre-emptive move to successfully thwart any attempts to ban testing of anti-satellite weaponry that may result from the Geneva meet.
However, the meetings, which will continue through March 28, has already hit a roadblock with the U.S. representative accusing China and Russia of undermining the entire process by developing anti-satellite weaponry.
While the Americans are blaming Russians and Chinese for militarising space, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has requested immediate funding of $10 million to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) system – Reactor On A Rocket (ROAR) – in space according to the Pentagon’s fiscal 2020 budget.
As the US, China and Russia squabble over the development of sophisticated anti-satellite missiles and lasers, and the launching of weapons into space, the European Union says the very real threat of space debris is being ignored. The so-called Big Three appear to want to “weaponise” space on their own terms and, with huge strides in technology made since the Outer Space Treaty (OST) was signed in 1967, the final frontier is up for grabs.
With India’s defiant act just a day before the Geneva meet is to be concluded, it would be interesting to observe how the international community reacts to Mission Shakti.
In response to Mission Shakti acting U.S Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan warned any nations that might be considering anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests like the one India carried out to “not make a mess” in space, noting the debris that can be left behind.
US visa denial to DRDO scientists
United States of America denied visa to two of India’s top scientists. The two were to attend an Indo-Pacific conference in Hawaii. The most intriguing part of US visa denial episode is that US itself had invited these two DRDO scientists. Secretary, Department of Defense Research and Development, Dr. G. Sateesh Reddy who is also the DRDO Chairman and eminent scientist Dr. S. Guruprasad both were denied US visa despite there was no problem in the visa application filed on time. Both the scientists had no clearance issue and traveled USA on earlier occasions too.
Is there a shift in U.S.-India defense relationship? There has been denial of visas to Indian defense officials and that also after extending an invite to them. I have two examples from last three weeks. One is the secretary DRDO, Dr. Satheesh, and he was here even in December with the Indian defense minister. And the second one is Dr. Guruprasad, DG production, and out of a team of five he was only one who was denied visa. So these both were not coming first time or any clearance issues. So is there a shift in the policy? Because I know that you don’t talk about visas from the podium, but please, is there a policy why these people are getting denied the visas after then invite?
MR PALLADINO: The United States – no, okay. The United States-India defense and security cooperation is rapidly expanding as part of our deepening strategic partnership, and India is one of the premier security partners in the Indo-Pacific region. So as part of that effort, exchanges, reciprocal visits between American and Indian defense officials – they’re increasing at an unprecedented pace. We – the United States, we seek to expand our defense and security cooperation with India, and that includes defense and security officials. And I’ll stop there.
Robert Palladino is the Deputy Spokesperson of the US Department of State
Department Press Briefing
March 26, 2019
The US move, though seemingly not linked to India’s A-Sat test, has raised eyebrows in the defence establishment given the fact that US already knew about Mission Shakti and was spying on the ASAT test from various facilities.
US wants to get paid for tracking debris
The U.S. military’s early warning and surveillance network on the day of the test at 1:39AM EST detected India’s missile launch aimed at one of its own satellites in low Earth orbit.
The U.S. military’s Strategic Command was tracking more than 250 pieces of debris from India’s missile test and would issue “close-approach notifications as required until the debris enters the Earth’s atmosphere,” Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn said.
The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg, which is part of U.S. Strategic Command, maintains a space catalog that tracks debris and other objects. The center operates the Space Surveillance Network, a worldwide system of ground-based radars along with ground-based and orbital telescopes.
We were aware. Once the launch was detected, we immediately started providing notification to satellite operators.
The 11th Space Warning Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, detected the launch. The National Space Defense Center at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado; and the 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, also supported the effort. No other nation or other military, or civil agency could have detected, characterized and warned about a threat in space.
Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, testified on March 27, 2019, in front of the Senate Armed Services Committe’s strategic forces subcommittee. The issue was raised at the hearing by the subcommittee’s ranking member Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) who asked Thompson about the risk that such tests might pose to U.S. and allied satellites.
There is a need for better space situational awareness and debris tracking. The problem could get worse if more countries start testing anti-satellite weapons. Debris ends up being there for a long time. If we wreck space, we’re not getting it back.
Destroying a satellite intentionally and creating debris is wrong. Some people like to test anti-satellite capabilities intentionally and create orbital debris fields that we today are still dealing with. And those same countries come to us for space situational awareness because of the debris field they themselves created. The space situational awareness provided by the U.S. military is paid by the American taxpayer and offered to the world for free. So the entire world needs to step up and say, If you’re going to do this, you’re going to pay a consequence.
NASA Administrator James Bridenstine warned at the same US House hearing on March 27, 2019.
India’s recent anti-satellite test created 60 pieces of orbital debris big enough to track, 24 of which rise higher than the International Space Station’s orbit around Earth.
That is a terrible, terrible thing, to create an event that sends debris in an apogee that goes above the International Space Station. And that kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight that we need to see happen.
NASA has identified 400 pieces of orbital debris from the event, including the 60 greater than 10 centimeters in diameter that the agency can track and 24 that travel through the space station’s orbital height. As of last week, the agency, along with the Combined Space Operations Center (part of U.S. Strategic Command), had estimated that the risk to the International Space Station of small-debris impact had risen by 44 percent over a period of 10 days.
NASA Administrator James Bridenstine said at the town hall meeting on 2nd April 2019, which was livestreamed on NASA TV.
According to unconfirmed reports, USAF RC-135S 62-4128 CHAOS45 departed Diego Garcia at 2330Z for a mission in the Bay of Bengal to monitor India’s ASAT anti-satellite missile test. USAF KC-135Rs FRESH53 and 54 provided tanker support and returned to Diego Garcia.
Failed Chinese OS-M1 Rocket Launch
On the very same day India conducted its anti-satellite missile test Mission Shakti, China failed to launch its rocket to place a satellite in orbit. Launch of the OS-M1 four-stage rocket, also named ‘Chongqing · Liangjiang Star,’ took place at 05:39 a.m. Eastern from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. The rocket was launched by a Chinese firm OneSpace which failed to become the first private launch firm to place a satellite in orbit. The company carried out two successful suborbital launches with its OS-X rockets in 2018 before this orbital launch attempt.
The 19-meter-tall, 20 metric ton OS-M1, which was designed to be able to loft a 205-kilogram payload to 300-kilometer low Earth orbit (LEO), was carrying the Lingque-1B technology verification satellite for ZeroG Labs, a Beijing-based developer of micro- and nanosatellites and components established in late 2016. Lingque-1B was a 6U CubeSat which aimed to test technologies for ZeroG Lab’s planned named Lingque (‘spirit magpie’) constellation of 132 remote sensing satellites with a resolution of better than 4 meters.
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