NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says the Indian anti-satellite missile test has increased the risk of space debris collision with the ISS by 44 percent over 10 days. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

The head of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Jim Bridenstine, has slammed India’s anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test for creating over 400 pieces of orbital debris in space that can pose threats to astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Bridenstine on Monday called the ASAT missile test, conducted on March 27, a “terrible thing,” according to AFP. The test has increased the risk of collision with the space station by 44 percent over 10 days, he added while addressing NASA employees.

In the test named “Mission Shakti,” India destroyed one of its own satellites in the Earth orbit.

To the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Indian federal government, the ASAT test was a bid to show India as a significant space power even as its neighbor and rival China keeps bolstering its space research.

“India stands tall as a space power! It will make India stronger, even more secure and will further peace and harmony,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an announcement hailing the success of Mission Shakti. Previously, only the US, Russia and China had demonstrated ASAT capabilities.

There were worries from within India that debris from the destroyed satellite could create problems in space. But Indian scientists from the Defense Research and Development Organization argued that this was unlikely because the satellite was in a low orbit 300 kilometers above Earth and debris would burn up on reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. Any remaining debris would make up a very “small cloud,” according to one of the scientists.

Increased danger

Saying that not all of the debris pieces were big enough to track, Bridenstine announced that NASA had tracked 60 objects with dimensions of 10 centimeters or more.

The Indian satellite was destroyed well below the space station and most satellites in orbit. Still, 24 of the pieces “are going above the apogee of the International Space Station,” said Bridenstine.

“That is a terrible, terrible thing,” AFP quoted him as saying. “That kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight.”

The US military tracks objects in space to predict collision risk for the space station and for other satellites and is currently tracking 23,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters, AFP reported. Among those, around 10,000 pieces are space debris and among those space debris objects, 3,000 were created in a single Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007.

India’s official reason for targeting a low-orbit satellite was to avoid space debris. The test has also led to a global debate on restricting the militarization of space.

An initial official statement from the US Department of State had been largely supportive of the Indian ASAT test. But on March 29, the US warned other nations against carrying out such missile tests. “We all live in space, let’s not make it a mess,” acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told members of the media during a visit to the US military’s Southern Command.

Political slugfest

Modi has been criticized by opposition parties regarding the timing of the missile test, which took place just weeks before India’s general elections starting on April 11. However, in his interview by Indian news channel Republic TV, Modi said the timing of the missile launch had to be decided long before as the airspace needed to be secured.

In his speech to the nation on March 27, Modi announced the successful test-firing of the ASAT missile that destroyed a micro-satellite put into earth orbit by Indian Space Research Organization and highlighted the government’s efforts to strengthen national security.

Opposition parties complained to the Election Commission of India that the prime minister’s announcement violated the commission’s ‘model code of conduct’. The code had been in place since the polls were announced earlier in March. The model code is a strict guideline for the government and political parties to abide by after poll dates are announced.

The election commission stated on March 30 that Modi’s speech did not violate the model code. The government ensured that the announcement was made on the prime minister’s personal YouTube channel, and the national broadcast channels “borrowed” the feed. This helped the government circumvent specific directions that bar the use of official media by the party in power ahead of an impending general election.

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