India’s recent Mission Shakti that destroyed one of its own satellites with a missile has Baz Bardoe asking if the long-time pact among nations regarding violence in space is over.
Since humankind first moved into space there has been a kind of tacit agreement in place.
Satellites have many uses, some benign such as monitoring weather and some less so such as spying or supporting Earth bound war fighting. However, no matter how much nations got annoyed with such things, violence did not usually extend into space.
The reason for this is very much in the spirit of the nuclear deterrent. If you destroy a satellite then there is a very real chance that the debris field will continue to orbit for some while and damage your own assets.
This changed on January 11th 2007 when China destroyed a 750 kg weather satellite with a projectile that didn’t contain explosives in a head on collision.
It was estimated that it created up to 3,000 pieces of debris some of which stayed in orbit for years creating significant hazards to other space craft.
This was the first time such an activity had been carried out since 1985 when the United States successfully intercepted and destroyed one of its own satellites.
The US had subsequently desisted but the Chinese test seems to have marked the beginning of a worrying new trend.
Recently India managed to destroy one of its own satellites using a missile that intercepted it from earth.
The test which was named Mission Shakti apparently destroyed a medium-sized military imaging satellite of about 740kg orbiting at 186 miles.
India’s official statement was extremely upbeat declaring that the successful intercept and destruction of the satellite heralded India’s arrival as a major space power along with the US, Russia and China.
The debris field created by such a test will broaden over time expanding from the original orbit and poses substantial threats especially since some of the debris is very small and travelling at up to 17,000 miles per hour, making it extremely difficult to track.
Commercial operators are understandably concerned by this militarisation of space.
China has now apparently developed the capability to destroy almost any satellite it wants and the US has called for it to desist from such developments whilst claiming to be proactive in its own counter measures.
A new arms race is unfolding and left unchecked it threatens all space activity military or commercial.