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Space security is more than just rocket science

Bharath Gopalaswamy’s book ‘Final Frontier’ traces the evolution of the Indian space programme and where India stands in the domain of space security

The ballistic missile defence interceptor missile used for Mission Shakti in March 2019
The ballistic missile defence interceptor missile used for Mission Shakti in March 2019 (Photo: PTI)

Books on space evoke a sense of adventure: delving into the lives of astronauts spending months in space or running experiments aboard a space station that might help solve issues on Earth. And when it comes to India, you expect to read more about a space-faring nation that is aiming to launch its first manned mission this year, having narrowly missed the chance to soft-land on the Moon’s surface.

Final Frontier—India And Space Security: By Bharath Gopalaswamy, Westland, 256 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
Final Frontier—India And Space Security: By Bharath Gopalaswamy, Westland, 256 pages, 699.

But away from all this excitement lies a serious, more decisive, area of focus: space security. Having covered land, water and air in their quest for military superiority, superpowers are now busy covering every inch of space around the planet to expand their influence. When India tested its anti-satellite weapon as part of Mission Shakti in March last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed we were now a space power. But where does India stand in terms of space security and militarization? How can India defend and expand its space assets? What options does it have to make it big in an area dominated by the US, Russia and China? Bharath Gopalaswamy’s Final Frontier: India And Space Security seeks to answer not only these questions but also pertinent ones on space governance and laws.

Final Frontier begins with a look at the genesis and early days of the Indian space programme in the 1950s, thanks to the efforts of atomic research scientists Vikram Sarabhai and Homi J. Bhabha. There are bits that cannot be overlooked for obvious reasons. These include the development and launch of our first sounding rockets at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station, now known as the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, in 1963. Or the way the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) took forward the work started by Incospar (Indian National Committee for Space Research) without losing the essence of using space as a “tool for scientific and economic progress".

The early parts of the book also provide an answer to a crucial question: At what juncture did the Indian space programme add military objectives to its charter? After all, an exciting couple of decades had seen India develop a reputation of focusing its space assets on the civilian aspect: Aryabhata, the first satellite, in 1975 and the Indian National Satellite System (Insat) in the 1980s, which introduced the country to TV broadcasting, communications and meteorological observations, were prime examples. As Gopalaswamy writes, it was in the 1990s that India reformulated the major framework of the space programme, which included two experimental launches of the Agni intermediate-range ballistic missile, or IRBM. There was a setback in the late 1990s in the form of the Kargil war. India’s lack of space-based surveillance competence, the author writes, was “severely highlighted during this incident" when the India-Pakistan border was breached by intruders. The loss of life and property during the war with Pakistan “nudged India to the path of developing space-based military assets".

There is also a chapter on space situational awareness, or SSA, the ability to “track, understand and predict" natural and man-made objects in space, including debris. According to the latest data, US space agency Nasa tracked a total of 19,524 artificial objects in space last year. Data from SSA networks can be useful in protecting space assets through monitoring, collision avoidance manoeuvres and timely alerts. But what exactly are India’s SSA capabilities? As of now, India tracks its own satellites through “a series of ground-based radars" but it has not “established a mechanism for monitoring space debris based on publicly available data, or for sharing this information on a real-time basis with other agencies", according to the book.

The author’s analysis of the global arms race in space also takes a look at the different kinds of space weapons: everything from lasers (yes, those sci-fi stories of lasers being used to disable satellites are true) to kinetic energy weapons, or KEWs. The anti-satellite missile tested by India on one of its own active satellites in March last year was an example of a KEW. But as Gopalaswamy explains, these have certain drawbacks. They “cause an increase in space debris (Isro claimed the debris generated by Mission Shakti would decay and fall back on to the Earth within weeks), which may lead to considerable collateral damage in crowded orbits, with the possibility of the created debris damaging the country’s own space assets". These weapons are also easy to analyse for forensic evidence and “identify the weapon’s country of origin".

The latter parts of the book explain the global outlook and the international laws that govern space. The Outer Space Treaty, for instance, forms the foundation of international space laws, including the ones on space weaponization. “India has supported various treaties on de-weaponizing space" but it remains to be seen what its stance will be after the recent anti-satellite test, notes Gopalaswamy.

A key takeaway from Final Frontier is that space is all about setbacks and recovering from them. All major space-faring countries, be it the US, Russia, China or India, for that matter, have faced plenty of them. In the 1980s, three of India’s Insat satellites failed to reach their designated orbits. Today, India is not only aiming to reach the Moon again with Chandrayaan-3 but also prepping for its first manned space mission.

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