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Fire in Heaven

The next battle for global power will play out in space. What do our myths and stories suggest about the possible future?

Written by Jaideep Unudurti |
Updated: May 19, 2019 6:10:42 am
Lunar south pole, Chandrayaan-2, Mission Shakti,Indian flag,techno-industrial marvel,, indianexpressonline, indianexpress, eye 2019, eye stories,Kessler Cascade,ISRO, Indian Space Research Organisation, global power,film Gravity Shakti used a model called “hit-to-kill”, where the missile has no warhead. (Photos: Getty Images)

THE LUNAR south pole will soon have an Indian flag planted on it. The Tricolour might not flutter in the vacuum but the message is obvious — we have arrived. While Chandrayaan-2 is headed towards a launchpad, debate rages in scientific and military circles on the fallout of the anti-satellite test. The run-up to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of the test had everyone seeing stars. Beyond the exigencies of electioneering, what does Mission Shakti mean for the future?

While Shakti obviously harked back to Pokhran, there were some even more ancient resonances. In the Indian imagination, every seemingly new development is merely an echo of what once was.

The three sons of the great asura king Tarakasura pray to Lord Brahma for the usual boons of invincibility. More precisely, they ask for three impregnable fortresses. The three sons build three moving cities — of iron, silver and gold, together named Tripura. Brahma’s caveat is that they can be destroyed, but only by a single arrow. To get around this, the asura architect Maya fashions them in a way that they are perpetually mobile and never in alignment — except for one fleeting moment every 1,000 years when “the star Pushya is in conjunction with the moon”.

The asuras, secure in their floating citadels, begin to orbit the earth. At will, they descend onto the worlds of men and gods, reavers of the earth and sky.

Wars rage in heaven, but the gods have the worst of it. Their pleas are heard and the first demonstration of anti-satellite technology — or “hit-to-kill” as it is dubbed — is under way. This moment — Shiva bending his bow, the cities coming together in a fatal alignment, the arrow livid with eye-popping energy — is gloriously rendered with colours leaping off the page by Ram Waeerkar in Amar Chitra Katha.

In the current age, it is as if Rajinikanth issued the mission parameters: fire a bullet that hits another bullet. But while a bullet typically travels around 2,300 ft in a second, a satellite hurtles around 18,000 ft in a second.

Shakti was a techno-industrial marvel. Imagine tracking a target moving at around 20,000 kmph, then firing a missile which is moving at around 3 km a second, at a spot about 300 km above the surface of the planet, aimed at a point where the satellite — about the size of a Maruti Alto — will be in approximately the same time it takes the missile to reach that intercept point.

As the current affairs magazine The Diplomat pointed out, the real game changer was that it was the first time that “the Defence Research and Development Organization was involved in a space mission, and the first time that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has participated in a weapons test”.

At these sense-defying speeds, language itself is deformed. A missile is a “boost vehicle”. A target is an “adversary object”. The Russians prefer sinister bureaucratic understatement. Their comparable missile is called simply “System 235”.

Our world’s foundations are insubstantial. Whether you call an Uber or drop a bomb on Balakot, the backend is the same.

Our tweets and Insta posts themselves are offshoots of communication satellites or rather geostationary orbits. Mathematical artefacts inscribed into vacuum, they sprung from the imagination of Arthur C Clarke, who proposed in 1945 that a satellite revolving around the earth at around 35,000 km would appear “fixed” above the earth’s surface. This enabled them to act as relays for transmissions from the entire face of the planet. From then on, satellites joined the various technologies making the long migration to reality from the pages of the science fiction “pulps”.

National boundaries start dissolving around an altitude of 80 km — this is the legal justification for satellites not needing overfly permission, like say, passenger airlines. “Smile! – you are under CCTV” can now apply to the entire planet.

Satellites are the panoptic eye, the new icons of this age of surveillance. At the very dawn of science fiction, HG Wells had foreseen this. The opening lines of The War of the Worlds (1898) has unthinking humanity scrutinised by the malevolent denizens of Mars — “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us”.

Each culture has a mythic weapon. Whether it invades or is invaded in turn, each culture ascribes victory or defeat to this. America colonised through smallpox-infested blankets that wiped out the locals. Hitler’s panzers blitzkrieging across Europe. Babar’s innovation of combining bullock carts and matchlock guns that undid the Delhi Sultanate. In the era preceding ours, it was the Maxim machine gun. Firing 600 rounds a minute, comparatively small number of trained European troops could massacre Africans with vastly increased efficiency.

The nightmare power of the Cold War arsenal meant that it stayed in silos, never to be used. With the rise of powers like India and China, the continued survival of Russia, and Europe and America, the world, perhaps, is on the brink of a new cycle of fire and ash. This strategic play, where countries are pieces and the world is a chessboard, may receive a momentous upgrade. Orbital space itself, the ocean of the sky, shall turn into a choke point.

What shall be the astra that defines the age? AI is a contender. Whatever happens, though, the nature of the infrastructure means that the weapon is predicated on control of space.

In the Western tradition, led by military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz, a war is won by attacking the opponent’s “centre of gravity”, which could be the enemy’s capital, or something intangible like the will to fight. Now, the centre is the network itself.

Perhaps, our shiny new weapon is already obsolete. Shakti used a model called “hit-to-kill”, where the missile has no warhead. Instead, the enormous kinetic energy liberated on impact shreds the target. This also means that the orbits are clogged with thousands of free-flying debris which can randomly strike other satellites and so on. In the film Gravity (2013), a “Kessler Cascade” takes place, debris hitting other satellites turning them into further debris — an infernal, orbiting avalanche that wipes out earth’s communication network.

The Chinese have, instead, focused on the weakest link in the chain – the uplink that connects the satellites – by figuring out how to hack into the master command facilities. They can disable or even hijack the satellites without going through all the motions of a kinetic hit. With so much private capital now locked, spraying bouquets of debris that indiscriminately smash everything is antiquated as an elephant army today. War, like everything else in our world, is finally reduced to a “duel in electrons”.

When the debris reaches a particular spot called a graveyard orbit, it stays there. An archaeological strata in perpetuity.

Long after the oceans rise and drown our proud cities, long after the chowkidars have nothing but dust to guard, they will still be spinning around the planet. Perhaps, our successors will discover these one-rupee-coin-sized artefacts and marvel at the dead civilisation that built it.

Jaideep Unudurti is a writer in Hyderabad

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