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Image of ASAT missile shared by DRDO.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The ASAT or anti-satellite missile capability that Indian defence scientists demonstrated on Wednesday was a success at first attempt for securing our space assets. The technological feat was conducted responsibly in a low-earth orbit (LEO) ensuring that the space debris burns out harmlessly in weeks, according to a handful of defence experts who spoke about it with The Hindu.

"It also demonstrates that we can intercept and kill incoming long-range missiles having velocities of 7-8 km per second," said Avinash Chander, Chairman of the Defence Research & Development Organisation during 2013-15.

It was a direct hit at the first opportunity and an important step to show that we can protect our space assets, said Mr. Chander, who headed the national missile programme in the last decade. It called for the ability to precisely home in on a target satellite moving at 10-12 km a second.

Mr. Chander noted that many of the elements needed for an ASAT shot were already there (since around 2010) - such as the long-range missile as booster; a ballistic missile as an interceptor or kill vehicle. "However, converting it to an anti-satellite technology needs a much higher speed where you have 5-10 seconds to hit something coming in at 10 km a second. It is a new technology and a tremendous achievement for our scientists."

"We are now showing that we are taking space as a very active area of interest for the nation. [Apart from launching imaging and intelligence] satellites for defence, we have added an element to ensure that we are capable of taking care of the security of our space assets against any interference. It is a very important test," he said.

The Chinese test of January 2006 was conducted at a relatively higher and satellite-rich orbit of around 820 km and it reportedly generated 33,000 pieces of debris that are still floating around. The target satellite is believed to be Microsat-R, which was put in an unusually low orbit of around 274 km in January.

In contrast, shooting a satellite in a 300-km LEO is far more challenging than shooting one in a higher orbit, said Dinesh Kumar Yadvendra, Distinguished Fellow at CENJOWS (Centre for Joint Warfare Studies), a Delhi think tank set up by the Ministry of Defence. "It should all burn up in about three weeks," he said.

The feat, he noted, is comparable to Indian's precise insertion of its orbiter around Mars back in September 2014, again at first attempt.

The Indian Space Research Organisation launches satellites more frequently now than before and in case of a launch failure and a falling satellite, "Controlled ASAT [capability] is an essential element of space security. We should in fact have 5-6 of them ready."

Rajaram Nagappa, Professor at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, said, "It is important to have and show deterrence capability even though you don't mean to harm anyone."

According to him, having the ASAT capability is significant as India has close to 20 LEO satellites that are vital for various national applications. This is also a time when a few other countries have been trying out unusual space research missions that have raised concerns in many quarters.

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