Humanity Creates A Cloud Of Space Garbage, Again

With the destruction of the Microsat-R reconnaissance satellite on March 27th, India became the fourth country in history to successfully hit an orbiting satellite with a surface-launched weapon. While Microsat-R was indeed a military satellite, there was no hostile intent; the spacecraft was one of India’s own, launched earlier in the year. This follows the examples of previous anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests performed by the United States, Russia, and China, all of which targeted domestic spacecraft.

Yet despite the long history of ASAT weapon development among space-fairing nations, India’s recent test has come under considerable scrutiny. Historically, the peak of such testing was during the 1970’s as part of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and then Soviet Union. Humanity’s utilization of space in that era was limited, and the clouds of debris created by the destruction of the target spacecraft were of limited consequence. But today, with a permanently manned outpost in low Earth orbit and rapid commercial launches, space is simply too congested to risk similar experiments. The international community has strongly condemned the recent test as irresponsible.

For their part, India believes they have the right to develop their own defensive capabilities as other nations have before them, especially in light of their increasingly active space program. Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a statement reiterating that the test was not meant to be a provocative act:

Today’s anti-satellite missile will give a new strength to the country in terms of India’s security and a vision of developed journey. I want to assure the world today that it was not directed against anybody.

India has always been against arms race in space and there has been no change in this policy. This test of today does not violate any kind of international law or treaty agreements. We want to use modern technology for the protection and welfare of 130 million [1.3 Billion] citizens of the country.

Further, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) rejects claims that the test caused any serious danger to other spacecraft. They maintain that the test was carefully orchestrated to that any debris created would renter the Earth’s atmosphere within a matter of months; an assertion that’s been met with criticism by NASA.

So was the Indian ASAT test, known as Mission Shakti, really a danger to international space interests? How does it differ from the earlier tests carried out by other countries? Perhaps most importantly, why do we seem so fascinated with blowing stuff up in space?

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The SmallSat Launcher War

Over the last decade or so the definition of what a ‘small satellite’ is has ballooned beyond the original cubesat design specification to satellites of 50 or 100 kg. Today a ‘smallsat’ is defined far more around the cost, and sometimes the technologies used, than the size and shape of the box that goes into orbit.

There are now more than fifty companies working on launch vehicles dedicated to lifting these small satellites into orbit, and while nobody really expects all of those to survive the next few years, it’s going to be an interesting time in the launcher market. Because I have a sneaking suspicion that Jeff Bezos’ statement that “there’s not that much interesting about cubesats” may well turn out to be the twenty first century’s “nobody needs more than 640kb,” and it’s possible that everybody is wrong about how many of the launcher companies will survive in the long term.

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