Dangerous debris from India's ASAT test in March continues to zip around in Earth orbit

Four months since the ASAT test, there are still as many as 41 tracked pieces of debris in orbit.


When authorities in India shot down a satellite with a missile on 27 March, they estimated that the remains of the satellite would decay within 45 days. It was part of a proof-of-concept demonstration by the Defence Research and Development Organisation and the Indian government — the country's first successful anti-satellite missile test — from the A P J Abdul Kalam Island launch complex in Odisha on 27 March 2019.

The anti-satellite test (ASAT) was quickly followed by criticism from NASA for the roughly 400 pieces of debris it generated in a fairly busy region of Earth orbit. The 18th Space Control Squadron of the US Air Force and astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics have been tracking the leftover debris from the start. Space trackers now think it's possible that some of it could stay in orbit for a full year before falling back down to Earth.

Dangerous debris from Indias ASAT test in March continues to zip around in Earth orbit

The 5000-km range Agni-V nuclear-capable missile was launched from Kalam Island off Odisha at 9.50 am on 27 March 2019. Image: Hemant Kumar/Twitter

The test was, in fact, designed to minimize its fallout. The target satellite was in a relatively low orbit above Earth, at a 300-kilometer orbit. At that altitude, most of the debris created gets pulled down to Earth relatively quickly, burning in the planet's atmosphere till it's nothing more than a stream of polluting gas.

"The test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris," the official statement saidsoon after news of the debris made headlines. "Whatever debris that is generated will decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks."

Well, things didn't pan out quite like the official statement said they would.

Not all the repercussions of India's ASAT test in low-Earth orbit are clear. These broken-up fragments are moving at very high speeds — thousands of kilometres an hour — around Earth. There's no means of controlling them from the ground. If even the smallest piece of debris was to collide with another satellite at high speed, it could do significant damage, and even render a spacecraft inoperable. Luckily for everyone, no space debris or accidents have been reported so far, and the United States Air Force's Satellite tracking network continues to track and assess the debris created by the test.

"In the course of weeks and months, that stream will get broader and wider and more diffused," Marco Langbroek, a satellite tracker and consultant for the Dutch Air Force's Space Security division, told The Verge in March. An updated plot shared by a researcher on Twitter shows that, as of 25 June 2019, there are still as many as 41 tracked pieces of debris in orbit resulting from the ASAT test.

China destroyed a retired weather satellite in 2007 in a similar ASAT test. The test created 3,000 tiny objects, many of which are still in orbit a decade after the incident. Let's hope things work out better for India's mess.