Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Why even low altitude ASAT intercepts are a threat to operational satellites in higher orbits

Click diagram to enlarge. Orbital data from CSpOC

So how big a threat is this Indian Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test of 27 March to operational satellites at higher altitudes, given that it was performed at relatively low altitude (283 km, see an earlier post)?

In an earlier post, I noted that the US ASAT demo on USA 193 ("Operation Burnt Frost") in February 2008 was a good analogue (read here why). Like the March 27 Indian ASAT test on Microsat-r, the USA 193 ASAT demonstration happened at relatively low altitude, even lower than the Indian test: 247 km. So where did debris from that test end up, altitude-wise?

The diagram above is a so-called "Gabbard Diagram" which plots apogee and perigee altitudes of individual debris fragments from the 2008 USA 193 intercept against their orbital period. (apogee is the highest point in its elliptical orbit, perigee the lowest point). The diagram can be of help to show insight into how high fragments are ejected in an ASAT test. Please do note that it concerns a subset of well-tracked larger fragments: most of the smaller fraction of debris, difficult or impossible to track, is absent from this sample.

As is visible in the diagram, many fragments ended up being ejected into highly eccentric ("elliptical") orbits with apogee, the highest point in their orbit, well above the intercept altitude. Many ended up with apogee altitudes well into the range of operational satellites (typically 400+ km).

I have indicated the International Space Station (ISS) orbital altitude (its current perigee altitude at ~407 km, not that of 2008) as a reference. Some 64% of the larger fragments in the pictured sample ended up with perigees apogees (well) above that of the ISS. Quite a number of them even breached 1000 km altitude.

This makes clear that even low altitude ASAT tests generate quite some debris fragments that can endanger satellites at higher altitudes. True, most of it reenters within hours to a few days of the test, but still plenty remain that do not. In my earlier post I showed the orbital lifetime of these same fragments from the USA 193 ASAT demonstration. Many survived on orbit for several weeks to months, occasionally even up to almost two years after the test:

click diagram to enlarge

So it is clear that a "harmless" low altitude ASAT test on an orbital object does not exist (note that I say orbital and not sub-orbital). Every test generates a threat to satellites at operational altitudes. Hence NASA administrator Bridenstine was quite right in his recent condemnation of the test. It is indeed very likely that debris fragments ended up in orbits with apogee at or above the orbital altitude of the ISS and other operational satellites in Low Earth Orbit.

4 comments:

Unknown said...

"Some 64% of the larger fragments in the pictured sample ended up with perigees (well) above that of the ISS."

Should read apogees instead of perigee!

SatTrackCam Leiden said...

Thanks for catching that one! Corrected it.

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