K V Venkatasubramanian*
The successful delivery of India’s heaviest high-tech Geostationary Communication Satellite, GSAT 19, into a geosynchronous transfer orbit, early June, by the most powerful indigenous rocket GSLV Mark III has propelled the country into the league of big achievers in space technology. It has also paved the way for the first manned mission.
The June 5 launch came after the GSLV Mark III’s first experimental flight on December 18, 2014, which carried a prototype crew capsule. The suborbital mission helped scientists understand the vehicle’s performance in the atmosphere and test the capsule.
For the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), this was the third feather on its cap–an astounding and memorable feat–this year. It fulfilled the country’s long quest to develop its own economical but effective cryogenic engine and inject heavy geostationary satellites up to 4,000 kg into orbit at 36,000 km in space.
Earlier, on May 5, India presented a “priceless gift” to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka by launching the first-ever South Asia Satellite (SAS) to boost communication and improve disaster links among its six neighbours. The 2,230-kg communication spacecraft “opened up new horizons of engagement” in the region and helped India carve a unique place for itself in space diplomacy.
Built by ISRO and funded entirely by India, the Geostationary Communication Satellite-9 (GSAT-9) was hauled on board the GSLV-F09 rocket.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the “unprecedented” development sent out a message that “even sky is not the limit when it comes to regional cooperation“.
In February, the space agency made world headlines by using a polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV C-37) to slingshot a record 104 satellites, including the Cartosat-2 series satellite, into orbit.
The master stroke established India as the launch service provider for small satellites.
These remarkable achievements have placed ISRO in a distinctive position in the space race. The prime minister’s soft corner for space and his liking for ISRO were reflected in this year’s budget allocation for the Department of Space–a massive 23 per cent increase.
Over the years, India’s determined space programme has evolved with a focus on national imperatives, and social and economic well-being of the people. India uses its satellites for specific developmental objectives–civilian (earth observation, remote sensing, communication, meteorology) and defence purposes. These encompass environmental degradation, soil erosion, monitoring fishery resources, flood and drought monitoring, mining, surveying mineralogical resources and ascertaining land coverage for wildlife parks.Space-based applications like tele-education and tele-medicine have enabled greater access to rural population to these basic needs.
During the past three years, India has accelerated its space exploration missions. Among the nearly a dozen achievements in 2016 were the successful lobbing of the remote sensing satellite RESOURCESAT-2 in December and a record launch of 20 satellites in a single payload in June and three navigation satellites and the GSAT-18 communication satellite.
In 2015, ISRO hoisted the GSAT-15 communication satellite in November and the Multi Wavelength Space Observator ASTROSAT in September.
It also ground tested, for 800 seconds, the indigenously developed high thrust cryogenic rocket engine. Besides, five satellites were launched in July by PSLV and the IRNSS-1D, the fourth satellite in the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), in March.
In 2014, the communication satellite GSAT-16 was propitiously launched in December and precisely placed into orbit.
The country’s third navigation satellite IRNSS-1C was hoisted by PSLV in October and the second dedicated navigation satellite IRNSS-1B in April.
In the years ahead, ISRO scientists have a hectic schedule as a series of satellite launches are in the works. The next major project is India’s second exploration mission to the moon, Chandrayaan 2—an indigenous initiative comprising an orbiter, lander and rover, which are expected to perform mineralogical and elemental studies of the lunar surface. It is slated for lift-off in the first quarter of 2018, ten years after the success of Chandrayaan 1.
ISRO’s next grand project is the scientific mission to the Sun for observing the solar corona (with a Coronagraph–a telescope), photosphere, chromosphere (Sun’ three main outer layers) and solar wind. To be launched by 2020 by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-XL) from Sriharikota, the Aditya-L1 satellite will study the Sun from an orbit around the Sun-earth Lagrangian point (L-1), which is about 1.5 million km from earth.
The Aditya-L1 mission will probe why solar flares and solar winds disturb the communication network and electronics on earth. ISRO plans to use the data from the satellite to better protect its satellites from being damaged by hot winds and flares ejected out of the corona.
Very soon, India will gallantly call on Venus for the first time and return to the Red Planet with a second Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), probably during 2021-2022.
It is planned to put a robot on Mars’ surface. India’s first interplanetary mission, Mangalyaan, in November 2013, has been orbiting Mars since its arrival at the Red Planet’s orbit on September 24, 2014. It is a technology transfer project for designing, planning, management, and operations. It enhanced India’s reputation as a reliable low-cost option for space exploration.
India’s space odyssey has traversed 53 summers. The nation had successfully put its first signature on space on November 21, 1963, by launching the US-made ‘Nike-Apache’ two-stage sounding rocket (the first rocket) from Kerala’s obscure fishing hamlet Thumba.
As there were no buildings at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS), on Thiruvananthapuram’s outskirts, the bishop’s house doubled up as the Director’s office, the ancient St. Mary Magdalene church building became the control room and naked eyes tracked the smoke plume. Even rocket parts and payloads were transported by bullock carts and bicycles to the launch pad.
Nearly 12 years later, India entered the space age with its first-ever experimental satellite, Aryabhata, which was catapulted on a Russian rocket in 1975. “During those days, infrastructure was not available. We utilised whatever was available. In Bangalore, we even converted a toilet into a data receiving centre for our first satellite Aryabhata,” former ISRO chairperson Dr U. R. Rao had recalled in an interview.
From taking its first baby steps in Thumba, India’s epic space trek has crossed several mega frontiers. From relying on Russia for its first satellite launch, it has emerged as a key player in global satellite launches and manufacturing industry.
The nation has earned worldwide recognition for launching lunar probes, built satellites, for others also, ferried foreign satellites up and has even succeeded in reaching Mars.
*Author is an independent journalist and columnist with four decades of experience in all media forms – print, online, radio and television. He writes on developmental issues.