Sunday, June 23, 2024

US-India Space Alliance Broadens: Planetary Defence Talks Ignite Prospects Of Joint Asteroid Vigilance

By Staff Correspondent

Amid the recent bilateral talks between US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 2023 G20 Summit in New Delhi, a joint statement hinted at a notable aspect – planetary defence. This defence strategy aims to shield territories from potentially hazardous objects (PHOs) like asteroids and comets. Noted space experts weigh in on the significance and the path ahead for India.

The United States extended a nod for Indian institutions to partake in asteroid detection and tracking through the Minor Planet Center, nestled within the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, yet operating under the aegis of Paris-based International Astronomical Union (IAU). With India being an IAU member and its ARIES Observatory already on the asteroid detection vanguard via its International Liquid Mirror Telescope (ILMT), experts believe a more explicit collaboration between Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) or the Department of Science and Technology (DST) with NASA’s Planetary Defence Coordination Office could have spiced up the bilateral engagement.

In the joint statement released during the summit, both nations emphasized the importance of enhancing coordination on planetary defense to shield the Earth and vital space assets from the adverse impacts of asteroids and near-Earth objects. This includes US support for India’s involvement in asteroid detection and tracking through the Minor Planet Center, portraying a step towards a broader collaboration in space defense measures. Furthermore, the dialogue opened doors for potential joint crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS), broadening the horizon of US-India space cooperation​.

Dr. Adrienne Dove, a recognized space scientist, reflects on the apparent disconnect within Indian scientific and strategic circles towards curating a domestic planetary defence response blueprint. Following the United Nation’s 2013 recommendation for an International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), several nations have hopped on board. However, India’s absence is conspicuous, despite its robust detection capabilities through observatories like ILMT.

Dr. Marina Brozovic, a radar scientist at NASA, underscores the political lacuna with the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG), another UN-COPUOS brainchild from 2013, aimed at crafting a global response to PHO impact threats. While many space-faring nations, and even Pakistan, have gained SMPAG membership, ISRO’s absence is a glaring oversight, remarks Dr. Brozovic.

The communication chasm among ISRO, DST, and security outfits regarding space-based threats and their impact on India’s strategic stance is palpable. Dr. Alan Harris, a seasoned asteroid scientist, points out that India’s vulnerability to PHOs, given its geographic spread, dense populace, and infrastructure, isn’t adequately mirrored in its space defence discourse.

The strides by ARIES and other observatories in asteroid detection, in liaison with the Minor Planet Center, are laudable, opines Dr. Harris. Yet, a more holistic, national security-oriented strategy akin to NASA’s Planetary Defence Coordination Office is warranted. The nuclear option broached in the SMPAG living document hints at a potential role for the Department of Atomic Energy in India’s planetary defence blueprint, adding another layer to the dialogue.

Dr. Dove advocates for a swift Indian ingress into SMPAG and IAWN, to better position the nation against extraterrestrial threats, embodying its stance as a voice for the Global South. The recent US-India dialogues could be a springboard for more nuanced engagements on this front, carving a robust planetary defence narrative for India on the global stage.

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