India shot down a satellite. What does that mean for the rest of the world?

There’s a new member of an exclusive space race club this week. India announced that they successfully shot down a small satellite in low Earth orbit. But if you think this is a reason for anyone other than India to celebrate, you’ll probably want to reconsider that idea. (The Independent)

India has shot down a live satellite in space as part of a successful test of new missile technology, prime minister Narendra Modi has announced.

The operation, dubbed Mission Shakti, makes India part of a “super league” of nations to have achieved such a feat, Mr Modi said, alongside the US, Russia and China.

The announcement comes weeks after India engaged in aerial clashes with Pakistan over the disputed border of Kashmir. “This new technology is not directed against any particular country,” the prime minister said.

The first two logistical questions that leap to mind have already been answered and this didn’t turn out to be a worst case scenario. India didn’t shoot down somebody else’s live satellite. It was one of their own and it was probably launched fairly recently precisely for this purpose. The other troubling idea was that they were blowing up a satellite and dumping even more high-velocity junk into orbit. They didn’t. This bird was low enough that it will allegedly fall into the atmosphere and burn up in a few weeks.

But even with those concerns out of the way, this is still a troubling development, even if India is one of our allies. The number of countries with anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons technology is increasing. Both Russia and the United States have had this capability since the 80s, and China joined the club in 2007. Now that India has a proven ASAT missile, how long do you suppose it will be before Pakistan, North Korea and Iran will want these toys as well?

The problem is that we’re entering a period when skeet shooting satellites may be seen as an indirect, non-lethal option for a military strike or counterstrike. Since you’re not literally burning up cities and killing lots of people (at least directly), a tense conflict situation could turn into a prolonged game of low-orbit whack-a-mole. And we don’t have any sort of defensive capabilities for our satellites, so the only “proportional response” would probably be to shoot down more of theirs. (Whoever “they” wind up being in this scenario.)

The problem is that we’ve grown so heavily dependent on our fleet of space birds that if a bunch of them start blowing up we’re going to be in serious trouble. GPS stops working at that point and we rely on that for a lot more than just keeping Google Maps updated in our cars. Communications, defense, emergency response, and medical networks are all affected, just to name a few. We’d also be back to guessing where hurricanes are and where they might hit without those capabilities.

The waiting list to build and launch new satellites is ridiculous at this point even with Elon Musk putting up reusable rockets every few weeks. There’s supposedly been a treaty in place for many decades prohibiting this sort of offensive technology, but it seems that’s gone out the window. Unless we want to take a massive technological step backward, we should probably consider getting all the countries with ASAT technology in a room someplace and discussing a new treaty.