The Rediff Special/ M D Riti
Can the satellite being launched by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in the middle of this year be used for spying? This is the question worrying international space circles. In a couple of months, ISRO’s tested and proven launcher, the PSLV, will launch a remote sensing satellite called The Evaluation Satellite.
ISRO, of course, is very clear it will be used for remote sensing and related technologies. In fact, ISRO chairman Dr K Kasturirangan described it as an advanced technology satellite whose mission is to test various future remote sensing technologies that will be used in cartographic satellites. It has been listed, in ISRO’s own decade plan, under experimental or test satellites, along with the GSAT that is to go up on the GSLV in a week’s time.
Like all ISRO satellites, this one too is under production at the ISRO Satellite Centre in Bangalore. The issue of what purposes the data it generates can be used for arises now only because this satellite will be launched at a lower orbit than India's usual remote sensing satellites (of the Indian Remote Sensing series).
Until now, ISRO has maintained that data from its remote sensing satellites cannot be used for spying purposes as their resolution is not good enough to enable the detection of man movement or even troop movement. The IRS series has a resolution of about 5.8 metres, which means you can see the tree coverage in an area, but not the individual trees.
The question of whether the ISRO satellites’ imagery could be used for spying or detecting troop movement initially came up after the Kargil invasion two years ago. Suddenly, everyone was wondering why ISRO had never given the country’s armed forces any advance intimation about Pakistani movement on the Himalayan ranges.
The accusation made ISRO indignant. "We are purely a peace time programme devoted to achieving civilian objectives, economic development, communication and so on," ISRO chairman Dr K Kasturirangan had then told rediff.com. "We do not make or deploy spy satellites."
ISRO has always been wary of being linked with the Indian defence programme, a connection that is inevitable because the same rocket technology is used to make missiles and launchers. But scientists are now wondering how much longer the Indian space programme can remain completely sanitised and not help other government agencies like the defence establishment. Until now, ISRO genuinely did not have the wherewithal to facilitate aerial spying. After the next PSLV launch, though, that may no longer remain an issue.
In terms of technology enhancement, TES is certainly a quantum leap over its existing satellites. The very first IRS satellites provided a resolution of just 36 metres. The new under-development IRS-P5, which ISRO has named CARTOSAT, will have two panchromatic cameras with a spatial resolution of 2.5 metres.
This satellite will be placed in a 617 km polar sun-synchronous orbit that can give a revisit capacity of five days. That, in layman’s language, means the satellite can cover the same terrain every five days. Whoever sees the resulting data can easily detect any changes or movements that have occurred over those five days, making it possible for it to be used as a spy satellite. According to Dr Rangan, the CARTOSAT will be launched within the next two years.
ISRO has always maintained it does not directly supply images to Indian defence establishments or any other Government agencies. However, ISRO sources explain that anyone can easily buy satellite imagery from ISRO through the National Remote Sensing Agency at Hyderabad. Even international agencies can do so through the American Agency Space Imaging Centre.
However, neither ISRO nor its American distributor is willing to reveal whether Indian defence establishments have either bought or been given aerial imagery which could have been used as aerial surveillance for military purposes. ISRO clearly states it cannot disclose who its clients are, but admits that anyone can buy its imagery.
Spy satellites have been used the world over, especially in the US and the USSR, for a long time now. Reports indicate the new American dispensation under President George W Bush is even more inclined to facilitate the deployment of spy satellites and other weaponry in space and to legalise anti-satellite weaponry.
By some global estimates, about 1,500 new satellites will be launched internationally over the next decade to add to the estimated 600 that are now in orbit. Billions of dollars have already been invested in space by various countries, big and small. The US alone is known to have invested about $ 100 billion in space science so far. Russia has developed and tested 140 booster rockets while the US has only developed one new booster rocket over the past 20 years.
China and Japan are rapidly catching up with these advanced countries. And India, despite its smaller size and economic backwardness, is not far behind. China, which recently launched a high-resolution commercial imaging satellite, plans to place a human in orbit for the first time. Japan too has embarked on a satellite reconnaissance programme of its own that will give its military greater autonomy from the United States.
Meanwhile, everyone outside India is busy making anti-satellite laser weapons and new computer tools to disrupt or corrupt satellite data. Russia is believed to have developed anti-satellite weapons, while China is said to be aggressively pursuing them. The United States, too, will redouble its efforts to develop anti-satellite weapons as the Russian and Chinese space programmes grow.
The US Space Command mission statement clearly states: "Protecting our ability to launch and operate satellites -- and denying an enemy the same ability -- could be pivotal to the success of future US military operations. The increasing reliance of joint forces on space means we must achieve space superiority in times of conflict. Likewise, we must be able to preserve civil and commercial access to space."
Many Indian space scientists firmly believe it is this avowed American objective, of protecting its own ability to launch satellites even as it hinders that of others, that caused the US to impose economic sanctions against India almost a decade ago. This led to the stopping of the Glavkosmos technology transfer deal, through which Russia was to teach India how to make cryogenic engines and stages to fuel the GSLV launcher.
The US government may decide to enhance its satellite defenses and space control capabilities. It may call for renewed testing of the Mid Range Advanced Chemical Laser, a ground-based anti-satellite weapon that was last tested in 1997, in the face of widespread domestic and foreign criticism. Russian President Boris Yeltsin personally intervened to try and stop the tests, warning the US against the danger of weaponising space. The US Space Commission had even considered establishing a separate Space Force or Space Corps of 30,000 troops, but that proposal appears to have been shelved as too controversial.
The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty prohibits the United States from deploying laser weapons in space. However, Bush has said he will either change or scrap the treaty with Russia. He has also pledged to develop a more comprehensive missile defense system, which could include the possibility of deploying weapons in space.
Given this changing global atmosphere, ISRO might soon find itself drawn into supporting India’s missile defence programme with its satellites and rocket technology, despite its clear current objective of being a peace time programme committed to national needs. Since defence is a national need, will the Indian space programme not have to oblige?
Design: Dominic Xavier
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