On May 11, 1998, India conducted five underground nuclear detonation tests at Pokhran. Codenamed as ‘Operation Shakti’ it made India sixth nuclear superpower in the world

BHUBANESWAR: On May 11, 1998, India conducted five underground nuclear detonation tests at Pokhran. Code Named as ‘Operation Shakti’ it made India sixth nuclear superpower in the world. After nearly two decades, in a different kind of mission that left other countries unfazed, India shot down a live satellite with its newly developed Anti-Satellite (A-SAT) missile. Dubbed as ‘Mission Shakti’, it propelled the country into the very exclusive club of four nations that possess the specific capability.

As the nation celebrated the rare feat, the contribution of a team of around 100 defence scientists mostly of younger generation, who delivered India’s first A-SAT missile in a record less than six months, is a matter of pride.The killer weapon shot down a Low Earth Orbit Satellite (LEOS) with high precision achieving less than 10 cm accuracy which other countries including China could not achieve in their maiden attempt.

“Yes, we have achieved it in our first attempt.

The last image of hit-to-kill we have received shows that the accuracy was somewhere around that distance. A-SAT mission was a national commitment and it was accomplished in a record time,” said Programme Director (Area Defence) U Rajababu. Most challenging in the mission was the altitude and velocity of the target and the weapon system. In the case, the minimum velocity of the satellite was 8 km per second while the missile travelled at a speed of 10 km per second. 

The decommissioned satellite shot down was of 1.5 m x 1.5 m. The accuracy was so high that the missile hit at the centre. It was like bullet hitting a bullet. In exo-atmospheric mission it has to be direct hit to destroy the target. Had it been missed by an inch, there would have been absolutely no impact. 

“When you intercept a satellite, the relative velocity will be more than 10 km per second. For every second of deviation, a missile has to cover at least 10 km distance, which is most challenging. If you have to cover that course correction, you need a very accurate quick reaction control system, which responds to the requirement,” Rajababu said.While Research Centre Imarat (RCI) was the lead laboratory that developed the missile including its avionics, Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL) and Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) pulled up all resources and capabilities to come together and took forward the mission without having any knowledge about it. 

“It was completely an indigenous system. NSA Ajit Doval whom we report to on strategic matters gave the direction to go ahead with the test and he had the concurrence from the Prime Minister. As a responsible nation, we wanted to be sure all space assets were safe and all the debris decayed fast,” said DRDO Chairman G Satheesh Reddy.

Apart from the technologies used in the BMD system and the long range underwater missile under ANSP program, the DRDO had to add few more technologies to integrate the new A-SAT missile.

New technologies included very quick reaction divert and altitude control system and a powerful sensor that can detect target from a far distance. The divert thruster has been used for the first time and no other missile has such a unique technology. The new launcher was also built in a record three months.

Secret Mission

It was a highly classified mission which was known to only five persons and monitored by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Many senior scientists were unaware of the target even though they worked overtime to develop the missile. Many were in the impression that the missile would be fired against an electronic target. Since ISRO was entrusted with the responsibility to track and monitor the target, a weather satellite, most of the scientists involved in missile integration were camouflaged.Getting Notice to Airmen (Notam) was also another issue. Since the air traffic over Pakistan is said to have been diverted after the air strike, the entire load was on this zone through which the missile had to travel. The Notam was also given for a very confined period.