Reaching for the skies - India’s space technology at its best
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Reaching for the skies - India’s space technology at its bestPallava Bagla*

A little known fact, India today has end to end capabilities in space; the country builds and launches its own heavy duty rockets; designs and fabricates some of the most sophisticated satellites. In a singular achievement, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission or Mangalyaan, an unmanned satellite, is today racing to rendezvous with the Red planet, making India part of a select club of 6 that have dared to undertake the over 680 million kilometre journey.

In 2009, India’s maiden mission to the moon, Chandrayaan-1 brought back the first clinching evidence of the presence of water on the parched lunar surface. In more down to Earth missions, Indian satellites are also helping locate underground water aquifers for some of the poorest and marginal people of India. In a way, India’s space technology is helping everyone.
With 10 satellites in orbit, India has the largest fleet of communication satellites in space among all countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Flying as many as a dozen remote sensing satellites, New Delhi controls the largest fleet of civilian eyes in the skies in the entire world with some birds that can see objects as small as car from 800 kilometres in the sky with other satellites that have day and night viewing capability and can image any part of the world. Till recently, the United States Department of Agriculture was estimating crop yields on American farms using data sourced from India’s `ResourceSat’ satellite.
India today invests just about $ 1 billion annually in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) which is the custodian of all space technology for the country. It was set up in 1969 and today employs about 16,000 people. India launches its rockets from the high-tech space port of Sriharikota situated some 80 kilometres north of Chennai on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Some 40 rockets have been blasted off from the twin launch pads. India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), a versatile workhorse rocket of ISRO has an enviable record of 24 consecutively successful launches. In its heaviest variant it weighs 320 tonnes at lift off or the about the same as the weight of a fully loaded 747 Boeing Jumbo jet, it stands about 44 meters high or as tall as a 15 storey building, it can carry 1.5 tons to a geo-synchronous transfer orbit and about 3 tons to a low earth orbit. On November 5, 2013 the same rocket successfully blasted off carrying India’s maiden mission to Mars. The PSLV launcher has been commercially used by Italians, Israelis and the French to hoist their own satellites. In all India has launched a total of about 35 foreign satellites from its soil.

Despite huge leaps, India’s space program had humble beginnings as it literally started from inside the Saint Mary Magdalene Church located in the tiny fishing village of Thumba on the coast of the Arabian Sea in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The first rocket the country launched was half a century ago on November 21, 1963 when a small American made Nike Apache rocket zoomed into the evening sky reaching a glorious 180 kilometres into the atmosphere. Vikram Sarabhai, a legendary Indian physicist is credited as the father of the Indian space program who said `there are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the comity of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.

Living up to the ideals, ISRO today focuses on helping large sections of the Indian people get access to services supported through its nifty space technology and is considered a global leader in space based applications. Fishermen in many parts of India take the help of advisories facilitated by the space department that help them locate the best fishing zones in the high seas, India’s OceanSat satellite aids the poor fisher folk in this process. India’s forest zones are mapped using satellites and areas most vulnerable for deforestation are identified from the sky, hence in way helping in the conservation of wild biological resources. India’s weather monitoring satellites have helped save thousands of lives when a series of cyclones or hurricanes struck India’s coast by giving timely and accurate advance information on such disturbances. India is known as the information technology capital of the world with a booming software industry and none of that would have been possible without the availability of communication satellites that could connect in real time Bangalore with Boston and all other such hubs. A flourishing domestic media ecosystem thrives and survives on satellite based linkages. India’s communication satellites have helped spawn more than 500 entertainment and private news television channels, in a way bolstering and supporting the world’s largest democracy with a population of 1.21 billion make the right decisions. The demand for space based transponders is so high that ISRO is unable to meet the requirements and is forced to hire space from foreign vendors.

In July 2013, ISRO made a foray in yet another field of satellite applications – satellite navigation. IRNSS-1A, the first satellite of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System being developed by the country, was successfully launched by PSLV. When fully ready it will be complimentary to the American global positioning system that so many have become familiar with while using it on mobile devices. Not everything has been magical; ISRO is struggling to master the art of flying the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), India’s heavier rocket that suffered back-to-back failures in 2010. This rocket can hoist 2.5 ton class of communication satellites and its modified variant could well be the preferred rocket for launching Indians into space using Indian rockets from Indian soil.

Interplanetary leap

India’s sojourn to the Red planet began on a balmy afternoon, when India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV lifted off, blazing a trail in the sky. The dreams of a billion plus people are riding on a small 1340 kilogram satellite which is now heading for Mars. A space mission which aims for Mars, yet has national pride written all over it and a deep desire by India to become the first Asian nation to orbit Mars.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) prefers to call it the Mars Orbiter Mission. It is an unmanned satellite that has been conceived, designed and fabricated by Indian scientists. The cost of the entire maiden Indian Mars mission is about $ 70 million and about 500 scientists had toiled to fabricate it from scratch in a record breaking 15 months. A low cost mission no doubt. K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of ISRO explains this Indian Mars mission is really a `technology demonstrator’, essentially showcasing to the world that India can undertake `interplanetary leaps’. Till date only Japan, China, Russia, USA and the European Space Agency have even attempted space travel to Mars, of these only the latter three have succeeded. Since 1960, some 51 missions have been launched, about a third of which have ended in disaster, the most recent being the Chinese failure in 2011. If India does make it to Mars, it would really only be the third individual nation in the world to have done it all on its own after USA and Russia. The European Space Agency has also reached Mars.

So, is this a giant leap or a fool hardy step by a nation that still can’t provide electricity to 400 million of its population and where 600 million people still defecate in the open? It all depends on which side of the divide you belong. But nobody doubts that the Mangalyaan is truly the cheapest interplanetary mission to be undertaken ever by any country and now it may well pave the way for low cost access to Mars. India is already planning its second visit to the moon with Chandrayaan-2 which will possibly land on the lunar surface India’s own rover; a satellite to study the Sun, called Aditya is being built and ISRO is already eyeing a visit to a passing asteroid.

While the Indian government is yet to clear a full- fledged human space flight program, yet it has sanctioned enough seed money so that Indian space technologists can master the technologies needed for orbiting an astronaut in space. As of now, the country has no plans of sending humans to the moon or to Mars. In an interesting recent development, the Indian and American space agencies are exploring the real possibility of jointly making a Radar satellite that would help study climate change and sea level rise.

`We will not turn our backs to help India alleviate poverty and will fully help in the country’s development process’ says ISRO chairman K. Radhakrishnan, yet he asserts ‘this Mars mission is a historical necessity, after having helped find water on the moon, looking for signatures of life on Mars is a natural progression. India is now demonstrating its capability to undertake inter-planetary travel with end-to-end technological prowess in space’.

*Pallava Bagla a globally recognized science writer is also author of the book `Destination Moon: India’s Quest for Moon, Mars and beyond’. Views expressed are personal.
He can be reached at  pallava [dot] bagla [at] gmail [dot] com

India’s Maiden mission to Mars spectacularly lifted off from Sriharikota on the coast of the Bay of Bengal on November 5, 2013 using the indigenous Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in its 25 th launch. (Photo Credit: ISRO)