[A pictorial representation of space junk]
According to NASA, space junk is a serious problem, and the figures (below) are daunting. To-date there are (1) some 500,000 pieces of space debris between 1 and 10 cm, (2) more than 21,000 pieces larger than 10 cm, and (3) more than 100 million pieces below 1 cm. Moreover, most orbital debris is within 2,000 km of the Earth’s surface, and the biggest concentrations of debris are found at 750-800 km. Only 7% of space junk is functional, and all debris is hurtling at speeds reaching 28,163 km/h (17,500 mph), putting in peril thousands of low and high orbiting satellites that are critical to the modern world. Satellites map, spot natural resources, collect weather and agriculture-related information, transmit all manner of data, and facilitate global telecommunications, not to mention their military uses (surveillance, target tracking, and weapon guidance over long distances).
There have so far been over 5,000 satellite launches, with decrepit satellites long past their use-by date orbiting uselessly and adding to the debris. “Atmospheric drag” naturally pulls the junk, like decommissioned low earth orbit satellites, into the earth’s atmosphere and burns them up on re-entry but this takes time and cannot be relied on to clear the debris fast. Other means have to be used to achieve this aim. Such as boosting the old geosynchronous satellites into higher “space graveyard” orbits in the 36,000 km belt above the earth.
Space debris problem needs addressing by all countries. So, why does an agreement on space junk that the Narendra Modi government is eager to sign with the United States dangerous for India’s national security interest?
Let’s consider the “Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices” executive order that President Trump signed in 2018, which was updated this year. It is the likely template for the accord that the Indian government is about to sign with the US. Trump’s order has 5 objectives. The first one is to control debris larger than 5mm released “during normal operations” over 25 years — with normal nowhere defined — and require spacecraft/upper stages to be designed such as to “minimize”, preferably, “eliminate”, such release. The 2nd objective to reduce debris from”accidental explosions” and mandates engineering and probability assessment methods to judge a spacecraft’s propensity for such explosions,which figure will have to be less than 1 in 1000. Moreover, energy sources within spacecraft would have to be depleted, and propellant burns and compressed gas releases designed to avoid collision and consequent explosion. The 3rd goal is to select safe flight profiles and operational configuration to prevent these from adding to the debris. The spacecraft will, in the event, have to be designed to ensure the probability of collision with debris 10 cms and larger to be no more than 1 in 1000, and that it can survive hits by microastroids and 1 cm sized debris without hurting its post-mission disposal prospects.
The 4th objective is to mitigate post-mission disposal of satellites/space structures by, in the main, enabling direct re-entry, atmospheric drag enhancement measures, maneuvering to different orbits, and by direct retrieval within 5 years of mission completion, with these disposal measures attaining 0.9 level probability. The 5th objective is regarding “constellations” of 100 or more tiny spacecraft, with each needing to have a high disposal rate (of 0.99). Further, small LEO satellites and cubesats will have to be engineered for a lifetime of 25 years.
Some of these concerns are being taken up by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) but the bulk of the problems and solutions are as the US has stated them. If it was an entirely UN initiative, there’d be some merit in joining the talks. But what negotiation exactly have ISRO’s Space Situational Awareness & Management Centre (SSAMC) and MEA conducted outside of, and within the, 2+2 context, with the counterpart US agencies before the Modi government decided to sign this agreement? As far as one can make out, there may have been an exchange of notes and some perfunctory discussion, but no real interaction between technical experts of the two countries. This would mean that India has accepted the US standards in toto. The question to then ask is whether ISRO has the advanced technological and design competence to develop upper stages/spacecraft which meet American performance criteria? And if ISRO can’t meet them, America will, presumably, wield its favourite stick to beat India with — sanctions, as an agreement violator!
Such space debris agreement may well require India to share the engineering parameters of its spacecraft as well as their mission profiles (“operational configuration”, etc. — 2nd and 3rd objectives) with Washington. That would make ISRO products and missions an open book and preemptively close off even informal cooperation with DRDO to produce heavy lift ICBMs with larger payload carrying capacity of single weapons and MIRV-ed warheads.
The more troubling aspect is why sign a bilateral agreement that limits what India can and cannot do in space, when over 50 odd countries have satellites and will not be bound by any of its strictures? India can choose to be responsible on its own account and take care to design spaceware that does not exacerbate the space debris problem, even adhering to the US norms. But there was simply no need to sign an accord that binds India hand and foot. Compare China’s pattern of international behaviour. It never signs any bilateral or multilateral agreement until almost all other nations have signed it, and then uses its reluctance to sign as diplomatic leverage to get what it wants. India is invariably the first to get on the wagon and gets screwed in terms of the lost freedom of action and space for diplomatic maneuver. But trust Delhi to never learn from the past and to keep repeating the same mistakes.