State department tries to minimize impact of NASA comment on India's anti-satellite test

Deputy State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of States has quickly scrambled to limit the fall-out from the kerfuffle between NASA and the Government of India, after the NASA, and even the Pentagon—to a lesser extent—had raised concern over India’s anti-satellite missile test, warning of a debris fall-out.

Just a day after the NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had said, “That is a terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris at an apogee that goes above the International Space Station,” and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan albeit much more diplomatic had declared, “We all live in space, let’s not make it a mess,” the Deputy State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino on April 2, acknowledged “That is an important concern for the United States.”

But obviously in an effort to tamp down the temperature between both sides, he said, “I would say that we took note of the Indian Government’s statements that the test was designed to address space debris issues.”

Palladino added, “We have a strong strategic partnership with India, and we will continue to pursue shared interests in space, in scientific and technical cooperation with India, and that includes collaboration on safety and security in space.”

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs Ministry in a detailed posting of “Frequently Asked Questions on Mission Shakti, India’s Anti-Satellite Missile test conducted on 27 March, 2019,” and launched by the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization, made clear that “the test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris.”

“Whatever debris that is generated will decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks,” the posting added.

The MEA also said that by conducting the ASAT test, India was not in violation of any international law or treaty to which it is a party to or any national obligation.

A day after the test, Shanahan, while noting that the Pentagon was still studying the effects of the Indian test, told reporters, “My message would be, we all live in space, let’s not make it a mess. Space should be a place where we can conduct business. Space is a place where people should have the freedom to operate.”

But NASA had asserted that the Indian anti-satellite missile test had created at least 400 pieces of orbital debris, placing the ISS and its astronauts at risk.

But what New Delhi had found galling in the wake of Bridenstine’s angry reactions, which had raised concerns in policy and diplomatic circles at the State Department,which did not want any more irritants in the U.S.-India relationship, particularly at a time when there was tension between both countries on trade issues, and more so when for decades NASA and ISRO and even NASA and DRDO had been perfectly in sync.

Consequently, Foggy Bottom’s rush to state that it was feeling reassured by India’s statements explaining that there was no need to fear any danger to the ISS or its astronauts.

Bridenstine had said, “That is a terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris at an apogee that goes above the International Space Station,” he said in a live-streamed NASA town hall meeting. “That kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight that we need to see have happen.”

He asserted, “It is not acceptable for us to allow people to create orbital debris fields that put at risk our people.”

"The Anti-satellite weapons test by India last week has resulted in about 400 pieces of orbital debris," he added, and noted that not all of the pieces were big enough to track and the NASA is right now tracking objects which are 10 centimeters or bigger.

Bridenstine had argued “some 60 pieces of orbital debris have been tracked so far,” but that of those, 24 “poses risk to the International Space Station,” because they went above the apogee of the ISS, the point of the space station’s orbit farthest from the Earth.

"We are charged with commercializing of low earth orbit. We are charged with enabling more activities in space than we've ever seen before for the purpose of benefiting the human condition, whether it's pharmaceuticals or printing human organs in 3D to save lives here on earth or manufacturing capabilities in space that you're not able to do in a gravity well," he said.

But he reiterated, "All of those are placed at risk when these kinds of events happen," Bridenstine said, and warned, India's ASAT test could risk proliferation of such activities by other countries."When one country does it, other countries feel like they have to do it as well.”

He railed that “its unacceptable. The NASA needs to be very clear about what its impact to us is,” and added, the NASA is "learning more and more every hour" that goes by about this orbital debris field that has been created from the anti-satellite test.

Bridenstine said, "Where we were last week with an assessment that comes from NASA experts as well as the Joint Space Operations Center (part of US Strategic Command).. is that the risk to the International Space Station has increased by 44 percent.”

The risk from small debris as a result of the ASAT test to the ISS went up 44 percent over a period of 10 days. "So, the good thing is it's low enough in earth orbit that over time this will all dissipate," he acknowledged.

Bridenstine said a lot of debris from the 2007 direct ascent anti-satellite test by China is still in the space."And we're still dealing with it. We are still, we as a nation are responsible for doing space situational awareness and space traffic management, conjunction analysis for the entire world.”

The U.S., he said, is doing it for free with the its taxpayer’s money from an orbital debris field that was created by another country."Why do we do that as a nation? Because it's the right thing to do because we want to preserve the space environment," he argued.

According to Bridenstine, the U.S. is currently tracking about 23,000 pieces of orbital debris that are 10 centimeters or bigger.

"At the end of the day we need to be clear with everybody in the world, we're the only agency in the federal government that has human lives at stake here. And it is not acceptable for us to allow people to create orbital debris fields that put at risk our people," he said.

Bridenstine said while the risk of the ISS went up 44 percent, the astronauts are still safe.

"The International Space Station is still safe. If we need to maneuver it, we will. The probability of that I think is low. But at the end of the day we have to be clear also that these activities are not sustainable or compatible with human spaceflight," he said.

After the test made India the fourth country to have carried out such an ASAT test — China carried out a similar test in 2007 and the U.S. and international community in that instance too had reacted with alarm — an elated Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India it was “an unprecedented achievement,” and that India had “established itself as a global space power,” even as the opposition parties said the test was yet another electoral stunt on the eve of the elections.

India now catapults itself to an elite club of space powers alongside the US, Russia and China.

Modi said, “The main objective of our space program is ensuring the country’s security, its economic development, and India’s technological progress.”

“India has always been opposed to the weaponization of space and an arms race in outer space, and this test does not in any way change this position,” he added.

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