How prepared is India for threats from space?

Catastrophes originating from outer space are no fiction. They are recognized as potential and credible threats by nations motivated to defend both the Earth and their national interests. So these nations are continually tracking comets and asteroids, deploying space missions to visit these objects and study them closely, and planning to deflect any object found perilous to Earth.

The latest sighting from their vigil of skies is the very small (~7 feet wide) satellite junk WT1190F, which is projected to fall off the southern coast of Sri Lanka on November 13, 2015. WT1190F was identified by an American ground-based sky survey infrastructure whereas its fall trajectory was projected by an European sky survey infrastructure.

Despite the uninterrupted and robust preparedness of the United States, European Union, Japan, and Russia, a space-capable India has been unpretentiously relaxed. Does that mean no meteorite would ever fall on India? Does India have a meteor defence and reconnaissance infrastructure in place? Is a national meteor disaster preparedness policy operational? Can India afford to be dependent on other nations for its national security from meteor threats? The answer to all these questions is: we are unprepared right from realization of meteors as credible threat to India’s security.

India’s prehistory is dotted with numerous meteors impacting on land at various times and places and leading to enormous devastation. The huge meteorites that impacted at Lonar in Maharashtra (2 km wide), Ramgarh in Rajasthan (4 km wide), and Dhala in Madhya Pradesh (11 km wide) could have unleashed energy of the order of several megatons of TNT, many times higher than the largest atomic detonation – the Tsar Bomba – and destroyed large swaths of land and any life in the environs. It is true such kilometers wide meteorites fall once in several millennia’s, and it is this paucity has resulted into lax efforts in India. However this somewhat reasonable laxity for rare meteoritic disasters has created wrong and unreasonable neglect towards smaller meter scale meteorites that fall frequently and unleash limited regional destruction.

In November 2014 the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory Near-Earth Object Program Office released a 20-year (1994-2013) global map showing regular explosions of meter scale meteors at various locations all over the world [REF]. The same map shows numerous meteors exploding with energy of the order of 24 kilotons of TNT (approximately equivalent to Nagasaki’s Fat Man atomic detonation of 1945), over the Indian Ocean Region and the Indian subcontinent. Also, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) in the past fifteen years has reported numerous meteoritic falls, mostly centimeter scale chunks, from all over India [Table 1]. The GSI along with few research institutions and universities has been studying these impact craters and collecting, cataloging and curating fallen meteorites. However beyond basic curation and research, the central governments of the past have not taken any measures to avert or least alleviate meteoric disasters.

The largest meteor of the past two decades fell over the city of Chelyabinsk in Russia. It was  20 meters in diameter and it exploded at a height of 29.7 km from the surface. This Chelyabinsk meteor exploded with an energy equivalent of 0.5 megaton of TNT, approximately twenty five times more powerful than Nagasaki’s Fat Man. Despite exploding at high altitude, the Chelyabinsk explosion caused thousands of human injuries and infrastructure damage worth billions of dollars.

In the past one-year and quite phenomenally Bangkok, a massive metropolitan region in the Indian Ocean Region, experienced meteorite falls twice one on September 7, 2015 and the other on November 2, 2015. Much nearer on February 27, 2015 a meteor exploded over five districts of Kerala – Kozhikode, Malappuram, Palakkad, and Thrissur, to finally fall at several locations in the Ernakulum district. The Geological Survey of India as per their mandate arrived at the scene and collected the meteoritic fragments for scientific analyses. Kerala’s disaster management authority played its role of alleviating panic. But that was it, no further ado. All these events demonstrated in real world the extent of catastrophe a meter-scale meteor impact can inflict if it explodes at low altitude or hits densely populated regions.

India’s laxity begins from the unfortunate blindfoldedness in recognizing meteors as credible threat. A strong evidence of this is the launch of the Canadian Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat) by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in February 2013. NEOSSat is funded by the Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and is Canada’s second mission to identify potentially hazardous asteroids. The previous administration had better understood the criticality of what they had launched for other defence and space agencies launch and used it as an occasion to build its own capacities in similar domains, but they exhibited a lack of thought.

In 2005, the frontrunner of this planetary defence pack, the United States became the first to pass a national mandate for surveying Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) known as Section 321 of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. With this Act, the United States Congress mandated NASA to build infrastructure for surveillance of potentially hazardous asteroids and analyze methods to divert those that are likely on a collision course with Earth. This legislation is further supplementing towards creation of a multi-agency US national preparedness policy for mitigating meteoric disasters. Again even these advances have not prompted us yet to address security concerns.

India has all the legitimate reasons to develop a planetary defence program of its own. It has a massive geographical land mass (seventh-largest by area) and an expanding exclusive economic zone (ninth-largest by area). Not only it is the second-most populous nation in the world, it is also the geographically largest most densely populated country in the world. An economically strengthening India is building extensive infrastructure, conserving forests with endemic and rare life forms, and developing large swaths of farmland. India operates a vast array of satellites in space; it has blue-water naval capabilities, and is a net-provider of security and humanitarian support for its neighbors and littoral nations. With all these obligations and interests, time is ripe for the Indian establishment to create an operational national preparedness policy for various meteor disaster scenarios.

In such a pursuit, the current Prime Minister’s Office and Space Commission ought to demonstrate dissimilarity from their predecessors. If all goes well, the end result of this pursuit should be the inclusion of meteor disasters in the National Disaster Management Authority’s portfolio.

India’s space exploration program is nascent and has already demonstrated brilliant capabilities via its Chandrayaan-1 and Mars Orbiter missions. Hereafter, India would have to sharply focus on the techno-strategic goals that it desires to achieve using its space exploration program. In the absence of a focus and inadequacy to extract real-world applications from exploration program, India would reduce itself as a ‘budget-crunched space tourist’ merely visiting planets on somebody else’s deep space network. A budget-crunched and touristy program would be ineffectual in generating the desired technological leap and strategic return-on-investment for India. Such a program would be as ineffectual as an arrow with a blunt head. India should therefore invest wisely to make its space exploration program an ‘applications-oriented’ one.

As in the words of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval “We have to punch not above our weight; we have to punch not below our weight. We have to increase our weight and punch proportionally”. Planetary defence is a justified doctrine and an urgent necessity; it fits well into ISRO’s charter of addressing real-world questions and it is in the larger interest of India and the world. Planetary defence should be therefore pursued as a cornerstone of India’s space exploration program. To this effect New Delhi should exploit ISRO’s capabilities for: constructing an indigenous sky survey and early warning system; Orbit, land, and return samples from near-Earth asteroids back to Earth; Demonstrate asteroid deflection competences.

Table 1: Verified meteor falls in India since the year 2001.

LocationYear of Fall/atmospheric blast
Devgaon, Chattisgarh2001
Dergaon, Assam2001
Bhawad, Rajasthan2002
Kendrapara, Odisha2003
Kasauli, Uttar Pradesh2003
Kaprada, Gujarat2004
Kavarpura, Rajasthan2006
Jodia, Gujarat2006
Mahadevpur, Arunachal Pradesh2007
Sulagiri, Tamil Nadu2008
Katol, Maharashtra2012
Jalangi, West Bengal2012
Ernakulum-Kochi, Kerala2015


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