Pentagon plays down NASA chiefs danger over India’s anti-satellite mission

The Pentagon in a statement on Thursday stood by its assessment that debris from an Indian anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons test would eventually burn up in the atmosphere, even after NASA’s administrator warned of the danger the debris posed to the International Space Station (ISS).

India used an indigenously developed ballistic missile interceptor to destroy one of its own satellites at a height of 300 kilometers, in a test aimed at boosting its defenses in space.

NASA chief Jim Bridenstine slammed India’s ASAT mission on Monday, calling it a “terrible, terrible thing,” and added that 400 new pieces of orbital debris from the test had been identified, including debris that were traveling above the International Space Station.

Bridenstine’s assessment contradicted the Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on the 28th of March, when he played down the threat the debris might pose to satellites in space and said it was his understanding the debris would eventually burn up in the atmosphere.

Asked on Thursday again, whether the Pentagon stood by Shanahan’s earlier assessment, spokesman Charlie Summers said, “Yes.”

In 2007, China destroyed a satellite in a polar orbit, creating the largest orbital debris cloud in history, with more than 3,000 objects. Since the impact altitude exceeded 800 kilometers, many of the resulting scraps stayed in orbit.

Shanahan said last week he believed India had avoided a similar scenario by testing at a lower altitude.

India’s top defense scientist said the debris would burn up within 45 days.

The White House struck a cautious tone on Thursday, saying it was aware of Indian government statements about its efforts to mitigate debris hazards. “We will continue to closely monitor the remaining debris from India’s ASAT test to ensure the safety of assets on orbit and human spaceflight activities such as the International Space Station,” the National Security Council spokesman, Garrett Marquis said.

Marquis said the United States remained committed to working with all nations to “mitigate the operational effects of orbital debris.”