ISRO Missions and Discoveries

[op-ed snap] Surveillance wars in space


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : RPO, mission shakti

Mains level : Space defence activities and it's relevance


Mission Shakti is a giant leap for India, but only a small step in the world of counter space.Years after Russia, the U.S., and China (referred to here as the Big Three) made a mark in this area, India too has shown that it can hit back at enemies attacking from space.

The relevance of mission Shakti

  • Military experts say that possessing the highly difficult capability to conduct such a test is important and essential for ensuring national security in space.
  • Mission Shakti, as it is called, has earned India a place in an exclusive club of ‘space defenders’.
  • However, a peek into counterspace, the world where such dangerous space activities are practised covertly by the Big Three, shows that while Mission Shakti is a giant leap for India, it is only a small step in that world.

Playground for confidential activities

  1. Secret Activities in space – According to academic reports, policymakers and those tracking the military space, for several years now, the space between 600 km and 36,000 km above the earth has been the playground for such secret activities.

2. Report’s finding – Around the time Mission Shakti took place, the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington, D.C. and the Secure World Foundation came out with reports detailing counterspace capabilities that different countries have today and their sense of threat to space assets.

3. Instances of activities –

  • The reports document that satellites have been launched to sidle up to other satellites in the same orbit.
  • Satellites with robotic arms or handles have touched or nudged their siblings in orbit.
  • Mother (or nesting) spacecraft have gone up to ‘deliver’ baby spy satellites in orbit.
  • Satellites have sneaked up to high perches to see, overhear and sense all that happens in space and on the ground.

The intent of such activities –

  • The intent of being in counterspace is thus surveillance and espionage.
  • In times of war, the intent could even be to capture or disable a rival’s space assets in orbit.
Concerns with such activities


  • Loud concerns have been raised over rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) in space.
  • The actor countries neither acknowledge nor discuss such activities and give them other names.
  • In an RPO event, one country sends a satellite that clandestinely sits next to one of its own (or another country’s) orbiting satellites.
  • The motive could be to inspect and assess the target’s nature, eavesdrop on it, or even subvert its functions.
  • The fear is that in extreme cases, the target may even be ‘abducted’ or taken control of.

Loitering in orbit

  • Satellites of each of the Big Three has been caught loitering in orbit at different times, and the victims have cried foul.
  • In September 2018, French Defence Minister Florence Parly was reported to have charged that Russian satellite Luch-Olymp was lurking too close to — and spying on — a Franco-Italian military communications satellite, Athena-Fidus, in 2017, that is, the previous year.
  • The U.S. has reportedly had its share of RPOs and other acts.
  • Countries are also honing non-kinetic, electronics and cyber-based methods to prevent satellites of other countries from spying on their regions.
  • Cyber attacks can destroy, steal or distort other satellites or ground stations. The attacker gains control of the space asset.


“No one will declare that they are pursuing these kind of technologies but all are doing it, all have to do it, specially major players. In times of war no one is spared, and a country must be ready with its counter-security tactics.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments