Indo-U.S. Space Collaboration for Orbital Debris Remediation

 Jennifer McArdle and Patrick Cheetham

As India and the U.S. prepare for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington at the end of the month, a reexamination of the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership goals are in order. India and the U.S. have outlined pillars to their strategic relationship—security, economics and technology, regional strategic and political issues, and global issues. Yet, there is a need for concrete initiatives to help bolster these cooperative goals. Space, particularly collaboration for orbital debris remediation, could provide India and the U.S. the mechanism to enhance cooperation, demonstrate leadership, and combat a persistent and indiscriminate threat to all space-faring nations.

The strategic importance of space is without question.  The National Space Policy of the United States asserts that space provides unique assets for the conduct of military operations, as well as an increasing array of objects that support life capabilities such as telecommunications and GPS.  As an emerging space power, India is keen to build its space capabilities.  India’s space program, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), is a source of great national pride. While, India and the U.S. have some prior space collaboration—mutually cooperating on the Chandrayaan I (India’s first unmanned lunar probe), providing assistance for India’s first human space flight, and just yesterday, announcing an Indo-U.S. Joint Mars Working Group—there is a need for more bilateral space synergy.

Orbital space debris poses an indiscriminate, constant, and ubiquitous threat to space traffic management.  According to NASA, hundreds of millions of space debris particles currently congest near Earth orbits; 21,000 that are over 10cm in diameter, and 500,000 of which are between 1 and 10cm.  Even the smallest orbital debris particles have the capacity to destroy functional satellites upon impact.  Space accessibility is threatened by the increasing amounts of debris in orbit and the potential for collision cascading. Space faring nations have attempted various debris-mitigating measures, but these remain unequal to the task. More must be done.

Scientists have proposed various remedies to address orbital debris removal (ODR). Yet, the proposal that has emerged as the most cutting-edge, efficient—both in terms of ODR feasibility and successfulness—and cost effective is a ground based laser system.  A ground based laser system “would engage an orbiting target and slow it down by ablating material from its surface, which leads to reentry into the atmosphere.”  There is the potential for the laser to prosecute a target and kill an objects orbit on one passing; thus maximizing the potential for mass debris removal in a given year. While laser ablation has substantive potential to address orbital debris, there are palpable risks associated with such a program.

Currently there is no meaningful governing body or regime in place that deals with ODR.  Likewise, there is no current international definition of space weapons.  Due to the ambiguous nature of space weapons definitions, present ODR techniques cannot be delineated: Approaches that eliminate space debris and non-functioning satellites can also harm a functioning one.  Thus if India and the U.S. were to collaborate on ODR, they would have to persuade the international community that they were in fact not developing a bilateral covert anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) capability.  Open dialogue and transparency of intent in an international forum may alleviate concerns.

International cooperation does not always yield cost-effective, technologically feasible, or politically viable results.  Orbital debris is a systemic problem for the space environment; yet, much like the multilateral response to climate change, an international response to orbital debris will most likely prove fruitless.  ODR requires strategic leadership and India and the US appear uniquely qualified to collaboratively meet this challenge.  As Obama and former Prime Minister Singh stated in 2010 “a natural partnership exists between India’s dynamic human enterprise and the U.S. storied history of space exploration.”  Prime Minister Modi and President Obama should explore Indo-U.S. collaboration in ODR for the benefit of the bilateral partnership and humanity.

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