The Union government has pushed for cleanliness within the country through its Swacch Bharat Mission. But it appears the space program of the country may be guilty of littering the final frontier; at least the amusing Pakistan’s Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry thinks so. He has claimed that the Indian space programme was becoming a major source of space debris. It is true that she who utters the word ‘Pakistan’ in today’s India, the worst can befall her. It seems as if the supporters of the party in power today are hell bent on deriding India by always equating it with Pakistan.

However, the space debris issue would most likely be dismissed as an irresponsible statement from a leader of a nation that has little to show in terms of achievement in space science. But the statement definitely warrants a look at whether India is being responsible as a space player. According to reports, more than 23,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 cm are floating about in the vacuum of space right outside our atmosphere. Most of these are being tracked regularly by the US Space Surveillance Network under NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office (ODPO). The material floating about in space around the Earth also includes more than 2,000 artificial satellites, the International Space Station and chunks of spacecraft and rocket parts that are speeding along in its 1,250-mile orbit.

The space junk raises the risk of collisions in outer space and with it the possibility of further creation of more space junk. One instance of creation of fresh debris arose when China tested one of its missiles on a weather satellite in 2007. The event had created 3,000 pieces of debris. In 2009 two communication satellites, one of the US and another of Russia, collided and splintered leaving several large pieces of debris in orbit, the ODPO has said. It was against this backdrop that India tested its own anti-satellite missile, which left at least 50 pieces floating about in space. India, of course, claimed that it had carried out the anti-satellite missile test in such a way that all the pieces of debris were directed towards the Earth’s atmosphere so that they would burn up on re-entry, without causing trouble to anyone. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Within just a year, that is, from 2018 to 2019 the number of Indian produced pieces of debris rose from 117 to 163, although the country still produces far less space junk than the US, China or Russia.

It is true that space exploration by a growing number of countries is making space a hazardous place for new missions. But it is also true that the polluters are not paying. The US, China and Russia will need to first sit together and come up with plans to remove the junk they have generated in space. And India has the opportunity here to create fresh area with business possibilities. It could club its launch missions with janitor missions that would clean up space debris.

If ISRO can design missions that can deliver more than a 100 nano satellites into space, it should also make efforts to design the means to remove space debris. Maybe push it back onto earth so that they burn up on re-entry. Perhaps India also needs Swacch Antriksh missions. The potential needs to be explored particularly in the light of a mission the European Space Agency (ESA) is planning. The ESA mission being planned by a Swiss space start-up named ClearSpace for 2025 will tow down a defunct Vespa upper stage rocket back to Earth in a suicidal mission that will burn up on re-entry. While it might be relatively easy for missions to destroy huge pieces of space debris, the actual risk lies in clearing the space of smaller bits. Such a challenge must be taken up by ISRO to be a responsible space exploring nation.