Space – the final frontier in the race to become superpower

In December 2019, the US Space Force came into being with the avowed intent to protect the nation’s satellites and other space assets, considered vital to protect their national security. (Representational image: Reuters)

By Prashant Dikshit, 

With the placing of the NASA’s vehicles “Perseverance – The Rover and Ingenuity – The robotic rotorcraft on the surface of Mars on 18th of February , the world space scene has come into a much sharper focus . We had already noticed that several space faring countries around the world and even those who are seemingly acquiring visions of being one in future were following the example of the United States and creating their own “Space Forces.”

In December 2019, the US Space Force came into being with the avowed intent to protect the nation’s satellites and other space assets, considered vital to protect their national security. Since then France, Canada and Japan followed suit although Russia and China already have many organizations with non-descript nomenclatures which perform this role. India however, took small steps and set up a Defence Space Agency in the same year.

On the other hand when Indian Space Research Organisation’s “Mars-craft”, the Mangalyaan entered into the orbit of the planet Mars on 24 September 2014, during India’s deep space Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), India emerged as the first country in the world to successfully send a spacecraft to that planet on its very first attempt. The ISRO thus, became the fourth space agency to reach Mars, after the Soviet space program, the American NASA, and the European Space Agency (ESA).

The decision to plan the MOM lift off on 5 November 2013 was crucial because it was going to use the less powerful PSLV rocket C25. In the original scheme ISRO had planned to launch the MOM on its new Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), but the GSLV has failed twice in two space missions in 2010 and the planners were uncertain about its cryogenic engine, and they did not want to wait for the new batch of rockets since that would have delayed the MOM project for at least three years. Launch opportunities for a fuel-saving transfer orbit occur about every 26 months and in this case they would have come up only in 2016 and in 2018. The choice therefore, was between delaying the MOM and switching to the less-powerful PSLV. They had opted for the latter with full awareness that it would have been impossible to launch on a direct trajectory to Mars with the PSLV as it did not have the requisite power. Instead, ISRO launched it into an Earth orbit first and then slowly boosted it into an interplanetary trajectory using multiple perigee burns to maximize the Oberth effect. In the parlance of astronautics, the Oberth effect is explained by the scientific logic that the use of a rocket engine when travelling at high speed generates more useful energy than one at low speed. This scientific tactic, calling for great precision, one would believe was the hallmark of this scientific achievement.

In the shadow of the Martian endeavour let us not forget to recall India’s first lunar probe on the Moon Vehicle, the Chandrayaan-1 launched by the ISRO in October 2008, and which was operated until August 2009. The spacecraft had then used a PSLV-XL rocket. India, then also had emerged as the fourth country in the world to place its flag on the Moon. Of some importance was the fact that the lunar mission carried five ISRO payloads and six payloads from other space agencies including NASA, ESA, and the Bulgarian Aerospace Agency, which were carried free of cost. The Indian message to the world, of its benign objectives was salutary. This is what Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had envisioned when he had set up the nucleus of a space organization back in 1961 and we have been fulfilling his dream since then. India has launched 328 satellites for 34 different countries as of 7 November 2020. ISRO’s launch of 28th February 2021 added another chapter to its glory by putting into a geosynchronous orbit the Brazilian Satellite Amazonia-1 and other 18 co-passenger satellites from Sriharikota Range. The 637-kg Amazonia-1 is the optical earth observation satellite of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the research unit of Brazil’s ministry of science.

This situation changed however, when on March 27, 2019 India successfully conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test. “India received both praise and flak for undertaking this test as some debris pieces reached higher altitudes and would remain there for longer than the government initially claimed”. A Kinetic Kill Vehicle was used for this test which seemingly was great for “optics”, domestically and abroad. It already served its purpose for India.

In the well-considered explanation offered by IDSA’s Space Commentator, Ajey Lele, “Hence, it is unlikely that India would ever take the space weaponization path. India’s test appears to be about sending a message and a demonstration of deterrence capability and its space technology capabilities. Now India needs to take an initiative towards starting a debate and convincing like minded countries to commit for the formulation of globally acceptable, verifiable, and legally binding space treaty mechanism”. Time has come perhaps to arrive at a more pragmatic as well as a more humanistic version of a “Outer Space Treaty” in the formation of which India would leave a deep imprint of the visions of the founding fathers of Indian State.

Simultaneously, it is important for India to realize that by conducting this test it has redefined its strategic stance in the military space domain. The ASAT test is the beginning of that process, not the end.

As it can be seen India has two interlinked and complimenting objectives and that firstly is to promote the formation of a evolving “Space Forces” structure and secondly is to strive towards a strategically balancing space treaty.

(The author is a strategic affairs commentator. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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