India’s satellite destruction test put 400 pieces of debris into unknown orbits, claims NASA

India’s recent demonstration of its orbital defense capabilities scattered more than 400 pieces into various orbits, endangering the International Space Station and other emplacements, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. He called the test a “terrible, terrible thing” at a town hall event yesterday.

The test, which took place last week, saw an Indian rocket launched to an altitude of about 300 kilometers, where it struck and destroyed a previously placed satellite, probably the Microsat R launched in January. Prime Minister Narendra Modi proudly said the test “shows the remarkable dexterity of India’s outstanding scientists and the success of our space programme.”

Reaction from space concerns around the world has not been so warm, with some decrying the act as a step toward the militarization of space, and others, like Bridenstine, offering a more practical warning.

“Intentionally creating orbital debris fields is not compatible with human spaceflight,” he said.

“We have identified 400 pieces of orbital debris from that one event. What we are tracking right now, objects big enough to track, we’re talking about 10 centimeters or bigger, about 60 pieces have been tracked. Of those 60, we know that 24 of them are going above the apogee of the International Space Station.”

Although most of these pieces will soon burn up in the atmosphere, and the larger ones could be tracked and avoided if necessary, the whole thing sets a bad precedent, Bridenstine suggested: “When one country does it, then other countries feel like they have to do it, as well.”

It must be said that it was for this precise reason — that U.S., Russia and China had already done it, as late as 2008 — that India chose to do it. So we have some share of the responsibility here. But we can all agree that sending debris into an orbit where it can conceivably endanger the ISS is just plain a bad idea.

An ISRO advisor, Tapan Misra, told the Indian Express the debris should all be gone in six months, and that the mission had been calculated carefully so as not to create any real risk. He also pointed out that a similar Chinese interception mission, because it took place at nearly three times the altitude, created numerous objects that are still being tracked years later.

Orbital debris is a serious problem that will only get worse as launches multiply, though some companies, like Rocket Lab, are taking a proactive stance on it. It’s gotten to the point where we’re designing space harpoons to spear and collect it. Cool in theory, but let’s hope it doesn’t become necessary.