Originally Published 2013-02-18 00:00:00 Published on Feb 18, 2013
Prior to the meteor hit in Russia and Asteroid 2012 DA 14's close miss, the Indian public and its policy makers likely could just not comprehend such a distant, seemingly un-real threat. Perhaps now, this will not be the case.
Asteroids, meteors and planetary defence
The dramatic events of February 15, both the meteor hit in Chelyabinsk region in Russia and Asteroid 2012 DA 14's close miss, bring home the reality of the threat to human life from asteroids and meteors. Earlier, people had been fairly dismissive of such incidents, taking shelter in the argument of low probability. Even as these may be extremely low probability events, it should be noted that such incidents could have high-consequence. The recent fly-by of asteroid 2012 DA14 (object of this size hit the earth roughly once in a millennia) and the meteor strike over Russia (the second major meteor strike in Siberia in the last 100 years) that injured hundreds of people show that, improbable as they might be, such events do happen.

In fact, it is not that such events have not happened before, just that our space situational awareness has been quite poor that we didn't even know when we had a near miss. The prestigious international astronaut society, the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) has been engaging the United Nations on a possible regime to deal with such threats, and they have stated in their report to the UN that as new telescopes come online, in a little over a decade, we are likely to be tracking as many as 1 million near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), of which 10,000 may have some probability of impacting Earth in the next 100 years, and 50 to 100 will appear threatening enough to require active monitoring and/or deflection.

India is an established space power and one that is interested in shaping emerging regimes such as the International Space Code of Conduct. But there is skepticism as to how serious India is about this issue and how far India will push itself in pursuing this at regional and global forums. Does India, for instance, consider the movement of so-called Near Earth Objects part of its Space Situational Awareness needs?

This is an issue that has been debated and explored by scholars. Peter Garretson, a US Air Force officer and a former visiting fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) recently wrote an article and gave an interview where he discussed the threat of asteroids. He suggested that the U.S. and India should consider jointly tackling such problems, just as they are jointly pursuing such ambitious global public good like Space-based Solar Power and Space Debris Mitigation. These are some of "the big ideas" that could take U.S.-India strategic partnership to new levels, and promote first-steps like sharing of Space Situational Awareness data. Of course, these ideas are still to fructify. However, given the multiple challenges, these are issues that India has to pursue with greater enthusiasm. While India may not currently have sufficient technical capabilities, collaborating with like-minded countries is a good way to get over such deficiencies. These ideas, as discussed by several analysts in the US-India context, should be pursued. After the conclusion of the US-India nuclear deal, this relationship is thirsty for such big ideas to push it beyond the rhetoric.

Active participation in Planetary Defense makes strong sense for India as well. India is one of only four great powers (India, US, Russia, China) that are both nuclear-capable and truly space-faring (having independent launch capabilities), the two pre-requisites to being able to deflect large asteroids, according to NASA. India has always seen its space program as serving the common man and the developmental mission of India. Now with the EU-proposed Space Code of Conduct gaining momentum, India is making active efforts to sit at the high table and shape these emerging rules. It is also making efforts to expand cooperation with other major space-faring powers, such as the US. While space exploration for the sake of exploration is exciting, the requirements for a planetary defense system, particularly in the backdrop of the challenges, are significant drivers of high technology cooperation. This should drive both India and the US to develop and share space-situational awareness, and such capabilities are a ticket to the high-table as well. Abilities that lead to protection from asteroid strikes also advance our abilities to use asteroids as resources, as the recent announcements of Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources Incorporated illustrate. A future International Space Code of Conduct and future space governance regime must include and facilitate capabilities that protect the planet and encourage space resource development.

Whether or not India's larger diplomatic organizations comprehend the importance of such on-going rule making, at least ISRO has not been totally absent. India's first-ever participation was to send an ISRO representative to the 2009 IAA Planetary Defense Conference in Grenada, Spain. Such participation should be continued and accelerated. This year, the Planetary Defense Conference will be on 15-19 April in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. India should contemplate representation at these forums - with not just ISRO, but the MoD and MEA as well.

Even if small asteroids like 2012 DA14 were to hit a metropolis, it would have produced the equivalent destructive effects of a hydrogen bomb. Prior to the events of February 15, the Indian public and its policy makers likely could just not comprehend such a distant, seemingly un-real threat. Perhaps, after the 2012 DA 14 and the Russian meteor strike episodes, this will not be the case.

(Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She was at the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India, from 2003 to 2007.)

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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