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Mission Shakti: What Exactly is an A-SAT Weapon Deployed to Defend Space Frontiers

Photo for representation.

Photo for representation.

The ASATs can deployed either as space-to-space or ground-to space weapons.

In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that India is now a space superpower. An anti-satellite weapon ASAT has successfully targeted a live low earth orbit (LEO) satellite in space. The 'Mission Shakti' operation by the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the PM said, involved the A-SAT destroying the live satellite, all in three minutes. The satellite that has been destroyed was 300 kilometres away. This makes India one of the few countries to possess this technology.

Countries such as United States, Russia and China have tested A-SAT’s before. But what really is an A-SAT?

An Anti-satellite missiles (ASAT) are a space defence mechanism and are weapons that can target and destroy satellites that may be a threat to a nation’s defences. These can home in on LEO satellites that may be used to threaten a nation’s space infrastructure or may have been used for spying as well as military actions, and disable as well as destroy them.

There are two ways in which the ASATs can be deployed. They can either be space-to-space or ground-to space. An instance of the latter can be traced back to the year 1985 when a US Air Force pilot in an F-15 jet successfully shot down the P78-1 research satellite, which was in a 345-mile (555 km) orbit. In 2007, China demonstrated its capabilities in space by destroying its own defunct weather satellite FY-1C using a SC-19 ASAT missile with a kinetic kill warhead. It is believed that the missile was launched from a mobile Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) vehicle and the warhead destroyed the satellite in a head-on collision.

The theoretical maximum range of the ASAT weapons is limited, which means that satellites above the range of 20,000 kilometers are out of range, This includes communication satellites as well as global positioning system satellites. The low-earth orbits (LEO), which tend to fly just a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the earth. Since their orbit is small, they tend to loop around earth quite quickly. A lot of the LEO satellites tend to follow the polar orbit, which means they pass above both the north and south poles many times a day. These sit below the medium-earth orbits (MEO) and are semi-synchronous. These are usually placed around 20,000km above the earth’s surface, and pass the same points on the equator multiple times a day.

In India’s neighbourhood, China and Russia possess ASAT weapons, and there is a fear that this could lead to a space-weaponization race in the region. United States already has ASATs while Israel is also working on space defence mechanisms that will involve the deployment of ASAT weapons.