India stakes its claim as a global space power

17 April 2019
India stakes its claim as a global space power
PSLV-C45/EMISAT MISSION. Photo: Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)

Any lingering doubts as to the rise of India as a global power when it comes to the peaceful exploration and exploitation of outer space must finally be put to rest with the successful test of Mission Shakti and subsequent putting into orbit of Emisat, an electronic intelligence satellite.

Shakti, meaning ‘power’ in Hindi, saw the successful launch of an anti-satellite missile on March 29, enshrining India as the fourth great space superpower, on par with the US, Russia and China.

Designed by the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), it has demonstrated capabilities to reach up to 30,000 kilometers.

Then, days after the successful test of Mission Shakti, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on April 1 used a PSLV-C45 rocket to launch Emisat, with 28 customer satellites onboard.

The feat was a first in many respects, as it witnessed ISRO placing payloads in three orbits in one launch for the first time. Moreover, the fourth stage of the PSLV will turn into an orbiting research platform for the conduct of space research.

Responsible power

There was concern that Shakti would create some 400 pieces of debris in orbit which could pose a threat to the International Space Station (ISS). However, Shakti was designed specifically to minimize debris by choosing a target at an altitude of 300 kilometers.

This stands in stark contrast to a similar Chinese operation in 2007 at an altitude of 800 kilometers. While the 100,000 pieces of debris generated by China will be in outer space for decades, the debris generated by Shakti will be cleared within weeks.

Likewise, Indian PM Narendra Modi himself informed the world immediately of the test, whereas China kept its test a secret until it was forced to acknowledge the launch after intelligence was gathered from other sources.

Thus, Shakti not only demonstrated India’s space power but also the credibility and respect India enjoys internationally.

This is further proven by the US stating its “shared interests [with India] in space and scientific and technical cooperation, including operation on safety and security in outer space.”

Similarly, Russia “highlighted the non-directness of the test as well as India’s continued peaceful outer space policy”.

The rationale

The recent success of Shakti and Emisat aim to demonstrate India’s indigenous capabilities and adds another achievement to an already well-established space program. Moreover, India proved it is one of the most preferred destinations for nations as well as corporations the world over from which to launch their satellites, further enhancing the country’s economic potential.

A similar test to that of Shakti conducted by China in 2007 had the potential to alter the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific region. However, by carrying out the Shakti mission with its inherent deterrence objective, India has corrected the balance.

The imperative of Shakti was also driven home by India’s experience with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, demonstrating that it needs to be among the powers with proven capability to be able to sit at the decision-making table.

Continuing a policy for a peaceful outer space

An address by PM Modi to inform about the launch was designed to maintain the transparency of India’s space program as well as to reiterate, at the highest level, India’s continued adherence to a peaceful outer space policy.

Additionally, India, in response to these recent advances in space technology, is likely to come up with a new space doctrine that will not only highlight this aspect but might also offer some innovative mechanisms to further ensure a peaceful outer space.

A proven space power

Even prior to Shakti and Emisat, India had carved a niche for itself in space and missile technology by hosting the largest constellation of civilian satellites in the Indo-Pacific region, holding the world record for maximum satellites launched in one go (104) and by carrying out technical and highly challenging missions like the Mars Orbiter Mission.

However, unlike some other powers, India has continued to share its scientific programs with the whole world, including its South Asian peers. To bring this point home, India is the only country to have launched satellites for a group of countries for free, in the form of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) satellites.