Assessing India’s Space Situational Awareness Capabilities: Prospects and Challenges
The second two-plus-two dialogue between India and the USA concluded in December 2019 in Washington DC. The two countries made a comprehensive review of cross-cutting foreign policy and defense and security issues in bilateral ties. One of the noticeable issues discussed during this dialogue was the Space Situational Awareness (SSA). Both parties agreed to cooperate for exchange of Information regarding space debris and space traffic management. The USA has already attained expertise in the field and possesses considerable SSA data. This data will be of significant value in ensuring the navigational safety of Indian space-based assets.
Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) current space-based assets include a fleet of 50 functional satellites including communication satellites such as GSATs and INSATs, navigation satellites NAVIC (of IRNSS constellation) and surveillance satellites of CARTOSAT 2 and RESOURCESAT (IRS) series. ISRO has set up the Directorate of Space Situational Awareness and Management to protect high-value assets from space debris’ close approaches and collisions. In August 2019, ISRO Chairperson K. Sivan laid the foundation stone of Space Situational Awareness Control Center in Bengaluru, Karnataka to help India protect its space-based assets from space debris. The center would capacitate India to systematically carry out all activities related to Space Situational Awareness and Management (SSAM). It would facilitate intensified activities foreseen by SSAM with increasing clutter of space debris and operational space assets.
The Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme which was initially introduced by European Space Agency (ESA) in the year 2009, was an initiative designed to support Europe’s Space access and utilisation through the timely and accurate information delivery regarding the space environment and threats to orbital as well as ground-based infrastructure. The ESA’s space programme mainly consisted of three main segments viz. Space Weather (SWE) segment, Near Earth Object Segment (NEO) segment and Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) segment.
One of the major space powers, USA, has maintained various mechanisms to keep the track of its rivals and competitors in the outer space since late 1950’s with the National Space Surveillance Control Center (NSSCC). The latest SPACETRACK programme represents a worldwide Space Surveillance Network (SSN) of dedicated, collateral and electro-optical, passive radio frequency (RF) and Radar sensors. The SSN has also developed the system interfaces necessary for the command and control, targeting and damage assessment of a potential future USA anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) system.
Why Do We Need The Space Situational Awareness Programme?
The Space Situational Awareness (SSA) refers to the gathering the knowledge of near-space environments which will observe the manmade as well as the natural objects and the analysis of the data for anticipating the collisions in outer space between the functional space based assets and the space debris which pose a major threat to the safety and sustainability of these assets. The “Kessler Syndrome”, which suggests the space debris will lead to the chain reaction due to collision of defunct satellites with functional ones leading to the addition of defunct pieces and hence multiplying the debris at an exponential rate, will come into play with the growing space race. This Kessler Syndrome which will be observed in the near future, also lead to the eventual saturation of outer space leaving it inutile for any kind of civilian or military purposes.
The satellite collision between the American Iridium 33 and the Russian Kosmos 2251 communications satellites over Siberia in 2009, was the first publicly confirmed hypervelocity accident between two intact artificial satellites in Earth orbit. In these type of hypervelocity accidents, the projectile velocity exceeds the speed of sound within the target material, resulting the shockwave that propagates across the material and is reflected by the surface of the target, reversing its direction of travel. The agencies like ESA, Elecnor Deimos, ExoAnalytic solutions have already introduced a wide range of active and passive damage assessment and monitoring tools in the outer space technology market.
ISRO has been dependent on North America Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) data for tracking the debris and monitoring of the active and passive satellites in the orbit. ISRO, not being a NORAD member, hasn’t been able to access the real time data. This limited access to the batch data also resulted in the lack of accuracy and precision and delay in locating the space junk. Along with other efforts of indigenisation of space technologies, ISRO’s Space Situational Awareness Control Center can be considered as a notable step in order to make India’s Space Program more sustainable, secured and independent.
With outer space becoming an essential factor in the scientific and economic development as well as in ensuring security of a nation, the space regulatory authorities, defense agencies, space insurance organisations, spacecraft operators, launch providers and research institutes are in need for the real-time data on the mission-related debris, rocket bodies, fragmentation debris, functional and non-functional spacecraft.
SSA’s Role In The Deterrence And National Security
Space is the new high ground i.e. it can literally be considered as the ground from which any state can control the battlefield. In the anarchic international system, a space power can be seen to have an asymmetric advantage over a non-space power adversary. As previous few centuries observed the role of territorial and sea power as the chief determinants of national power, outer space, along with cyber space can be seen as the main dimensions for determining the national power and as one of the tools for promoting national interest in the twenty-first century. This was first observed in case of USA during the Gulf war. Also, a first strike on space assets may seem to be the most effective method of disrupting a nation’s communication network.
The SSA aids in providing the capabilities of the preventive measures to be taken in order to avoid these strikes which may escalate into a conflict. “Since our military is so reliant on space, we have to know what is going on in space,” John Hill, principle director for space policy within the USA’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, said in March, 2017 at a panel discussion during the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington, where he also emphasised on the role of SSA in deterring the conflicts in outer space.
China’s Defence white paper published in July 2019, categorically mentions cyber space and outer space to be the areas of higher priority for national security, alongside the nuclear capabilities. USA’s efforts to establish a space command also add to the increased probability of security dilemma that may shift the future power parameters in favor of the two superpowers i.e. China and USA itself.
With an effort to stay relevant in the course of these developments, Russia has also expressed its concern over the rising Space Race. Russia’s State Space Corporation Roscosmos is preparing to initiate international negotiations on banning full-scale tests of anti-satellite weapons, Roscosmos Chief Dmitry Rogozin said on 26th July 2019. Later, while speaking at an event in Korolyov, Moscow Region, on 22 November 2019, he said that the talks are being proposed “with the aim of banning full-scale anti-satellite weapon tests held by way of destroying spacecraft and littering low orbits.”
The space security sector of a nation benefits from a sustainable, dynamic, and more collaborative relationship with the commercial space sector. With the increased commercial and capability-based launch contracts, there is also a need for risk reduction which again demands the Space Domain Awareness for maneuvering satellite launches and identifying operational orbits for collision avoidance. To gain superiority in space, the space control missions need to focus on not only surveillance of space but also the protection of space-based assets. In the current congested, contested and competitive space environment, any space power will not be able to survive without the ability to ensure its own access to space and denying the same to the adversaries though the later is meant to be practiced only in case of an aggression by the adversaries.
Indian initiatives have always been in line with the belief that the Outer Space is the common heritage of humankind and it is the responsibility of the space-faring nations to preserve and promote the benefits flowing from advances made in space technology and its applications for all. India’s SSA capabilities will not only reduce its dependence on the external space powers but also send a message across the international community that no single nation or only the previously acknowledged major space powers can monopolise the sales of sensitive satellite imagery.
India can also look forward to the commercialisation of its Space Domain Awareness Capabilities and contribute to the creation oligopolist market for SSA systems rather than a monopolistic one, governed by any one space superpower, for providing services like Space Weather Services, Near-Earth Object Detection Services and Space Surveillance and Tracking Services. Along with ISRO’s economic satellite launch capabilities, it can also look forward to conduct research in the field of building cost effective and robust designs of SSA systems with enhanced precision, intelligence and detection capabilities.
The success of the Space Situational Awareness Control Center will also boost India’s image as a responsible and self-sufficient space power. As of now, there is no unanimity in the private and state actors in the space domain in terms of regulatory norms. With the rise in demand for LEO-based services, increased involvement of private players and growing need for commercial On-Orbit satellite activities, Indian agencies can aspire to play a significant role in the future international initiatives of norm setting for SSA systems and data sharing for Military, Commercial and Academic research purposes in the space domain.
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