The anti-satellite missile test, carried out successfully by Defence Research and Development (DRDO) on March 27, has brought to the fore issues such as the need for an extensive network of space surveillance sensors, and facilities to acquire Space Situational Awareness (SSA) which countries like Russia, Japan, and China hold. Russia is in charge of International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) which provides global coverage. Such networks consist of phased array radars and optical telescopes that are geographically spread, mainly throughout the northern hemisphere. All these equipment together give some idea about what is happening in the outer space based on their observations. Systems like multi-facing radars which were originally designed to track and warn against incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles are also getting used. The SSN also consists of other radars and some optical telescopes. As compared to radars, which are mainly used for tracking LEO objects, ground-based telescopes are inexpensive and are used to track objects in the geosynchronous belt. India, too, has independent tracking networks in C-Band (for GEO missions) and S-Band (for LEO and launch vehicle tracking). However, all these systems have limited utility. The US agency has catalogued various debris, and attempt to trace their movement regularly. However, their infrastructure has much limitations and just cannot manage to track every piece of junk.
In view of India's international acceptability, there is a case for the country to take the initiative to establish a global SSA network. Such a network should consist of geographically disbursed network of optical telescopes and radars. No single country would be able to develop such facilities. Finanical issues would be an important aspect in such a project.
But more important, global cooperation must be forged between various nations in order to put radars and systems on their soil. Essentially, it going to a challenge for diplomacy. India has some experience in establishing global programmes like the International Solar Alliance (ISA). Now, as India has established itself as major space power through the A-SAT test, the time is opportune for India to take a global initiative like developing an International SSA Alliance.
(Dr Ajay Lele, Senior Fellow, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses)