Sunday 31 March 2019

Debris from India's ASAT test: how long until it is gone?

click diagram to enlarge

After India's ASAT test on 27 March 2019, on which I wrote in detail in my previous post, many people asked the obvious question related to the debris threat from this test: how long would debris pieces stay on-orbit?

At the moment of writing (late 31 March 2019), no orbits for debris pieces have been published yet, although CSpOC has said they are tracking some 250 pieces of debris currently.

Some insight into the possible lifetimes of debris fragments can however be gleaned from the debris generated by "Operation Burnt Frost", the destruction with an SM-3 missile of the malfunctioned USA 193 satellite by the United States of America on 21 February 2008.

The USA 193 ASAT demonstration in 2008 provides a reasonably good analogue for the Indian ASAT test on Microsat-r on March 27. The orbital altitudes are somewhat comparable: USA 193 moved in a ~245 x 255 km orbit and was intercepted at ~247 km altitude. Microsat-r moved in a ~260 x 285 km orbit and was intercepted at 283 km altitude, i.e. a difference of ~36 km in altitude compared to USA 193. Both intercepts happened in years with low solar activity, i.e. similar upper atmospheric conditions. There are some differences too: USA 193 was intercepted near perigee of its orbit, Microsat-r near apogee. There is a difference in orbital inclination as well: 58.5 degrees for USA 193, and a 96.6 degree inclined polar orbit for Microsat-r. Nevertheless, the USA 193 intercept is a good analogue: much more so than the Chinese Fengyun-1C ASAT in 2007, which was at a much higher altitude and yielded much longer lived debris fragments as a result.

CSpOC has orbital data available for 174 debris fragments from USA 193. I mapped the decay dates of these fragments and constructed this diagram. The x-axis of the diagram shows you the number of weeks after the destruction of USA 193, and the bars show you how many fragments reentered that week:

click diagram to enlarge

The distribution of reentry dates shows that most fragments reentered within two months, with a peak about 3 weeks after the destruction of USA 193. Almost all of it was gone within half a year. Yet, a few fragments ejected into higher orbits had much longer orbital lifetimes, up to almost two years. This shows that even low altitude ASAT tests on objects in Earth orbit do create at least a few fragments with longer orbital lifetimes.

The 174 debris fragments in question constitute a subset of larger, well-tracked particles within the USA 193 debris population. There were thousands more fragments, most very small, that were not (well) detected. Most of these likely reentered within hours to a few days after the destruction of  USA 193, given that small fragments have a large area-to-mass ratio (meaning their orbits decay faster, as they are more sensitive to drag).

Given the similarities, we can expect a similar pattern as the diagram above for debris fragments from the Indian ASAT test. As the Indian intercept occured slightly (about 35 km) higher, fragments might perhaps last a little bit - but probably not that much - longer.

UPDATE (2 April 2019):
A follow-on post with an analysis or orbital altitudes of generated debris can be read here.

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