NASA Chief Slams India's Anti-satellite Missile: 'That Kind of Activity Is Not Compatible with the Future of Human Spaceflight'

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said India could have put the International Space Station at risk by testing its anti-satellite missile. Speaking to employees at a town hall meeting, Bridenstine called the demonstration a "terrible, terrible thing" as it led to the creation of even more space debris—bits of rockets and satellites that have broken away and now orbit Earth.

Space debris can be extremely dangerous—as brought to popular culture in the 2013 Sandra Bullock movie Gravity—as it travels extremely fast. As NASA explains: "In low Earth orbit (below 1,250 miles, or 2,000 kilometers), orbital debris circle Earth at speeds of between 4 and 5 miles per second. However, the average impact speed of orbital debris with another space object will be approximately 6 miles per second. Consequently, collisions with even a small piece of debris will involve considerable energy."

Bridenstine said NASA had identified around 400 pieces of space debris from India's anti-satellite test. Of these, 60 were greater than 10 centimeters in diameter—making them potentially dangerous—and 24 are traveling at the same orbital height as the ISS. According to Space.com, NASA and the Combined Space Operations Center estimated the risk of a piece of small debris impacting the ISS to be 44 percent over a period of 10 days.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the successful test of the ASAT missile last Wednesday. He said the device had been used to shoot down a low-orbit satellite—making India the fourth country in the world to have successfully deployed weapons in space: "We are not just capable to defend on land, water and air but now also in space. I congratulate all scientists who have made this possible and made India a much stronger nation," NDTV reported him saying.

Bridenstine, however, was not impressed: "That is a terrible, terrible thing, to create an event that sends debris in an apogee that goes above the International Space Station. And that kind of activity is not compatible with the future of human spaceflight that we need to see happen.

"We are charged with commercializing low Earth orbit; we are charged with enabling more activities in space than we've ever seen before for the purpose of benefiting the human condition, whether it's pharmaceuticals or printing human organs in 3D to save lives here on Earth, or manufacturing capabilities in space that you're not able to do in a gravity well.

"All of those are placed at risk when these kinds of events happen, and when one country does it, then other countries feel like they have to do it as well."

A major problem with space debris is that it is a self perpetuating problem. As more space debris enters Earth's orbit, the more collisions take place—breaking space debris into even smaller pieces. This phenomenon is known as the Kessler syndrome—and was proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978. Eventually, Kessler said, this chain reaction could one day mean space activities at certain orbital ranges would become impossible.

The space debris created by India's anti-satellite missile test will eventually clear, Bridenstine said.

international space station
The International Space Station was put in danger by India's anti-satellite missile, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said. NASA