NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India shot down one of its own satellites in low-Earth orbit with a ground-to-space missile on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, hailing his country’s first test of such weaponry as a breakthrough establishing it as a military space power.
India would be the fourth country to have used such an anti-satellite weapon after the United States, Russia and China, according to Mr Modi, who heads into general elections next month.
“Our scientists shot down a live satellite 300 kilometers away in space, in low-Earth orbit,” Mr Modi said in a television broadcast.
“India has made an unprecedented achievement today,” he added, speaking in Hindi. “India registered its name as a space power.”
Anti-satellite weapons permit attacks on enemy satellites, blinding them or disrupting communications, as well as providing a technology base for intercepting ballistic missiles.
Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan warned that the use of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons like the one India tested on Wednesday risk making a “mess” in space due to the debris fields the can leave behind.
The US military’s Strategic Command was tracking more than 250 pieces of debris from India’s missile test and would issue “close-approach notifications as required until the debris enters the Earth’s atmosphere,” Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn said.
The New Delhi government and Washington, which have generally close relations, have been in talks regarding the event, and India publicly issued an aircraft safety advisory before the launch, Col Eastburn added.
Lieutenant General David Thompson, vice commander of US Air Force Space Command, said the International Space Station was not at risk at this point.
China’s foreign ministry said it hoped all countries “can earnestly protect lasting peace and tranquillity in space.” Russia declined to make any immediate comment.
India’s neighbor and arch-rival, Pakistan, said space is the “common heritage of mankind, and every nation has the responsibility to avoid actions which can lead to the militarization of this arena.”
Tensions flared last month between the nuclear-armed foes after a militant attack in the disputed region of Kashmir.
India has had a space program for years, providing Earth-imaging satellites and launch capabilities as a cheaper alternative to Western space services. It sent a low-cost probe to Mars in 2014 and plans its first manned space mission by 2022. India also launched a lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, in 2008 that included an orbiter and an impact probe.
The latest test, conducted from an island off India’s east coast, was aimed at protecting the country’s assets in space against foreign attacks, the government said.
A ballistic missile defense interceptor produced by the government’s Defence Research and Development Organisation was used to shoot down the satellite, the foreign ministry said.
The three-minute test in the low-Earth orbit ensured there was no debris in space and the remnants would “decay and fall back on to the Earth within weeks,” the ministry added.