ISRO: A Journey of Monumental Achievements
ISRO has a glorious history of achievements that helped propel not just India into the Space Age, but also push others globally to aim higher and further. By successfully launching the PSLV-C37, ISRO has pushed a whopping 104 satellites into orbit, a new world record. The previous word record was held by the Russians, for launching a paltry 37 satellites into space.
The main formative years of ISRO was after 1945 when space research in India was spearheaded by two Vikram Sarabhai – the founder of the Physical Reaserch Laboratry at Ahemdabad and Homi Bhabha, who established the TATA Institute of Fundamental Reaserach in 1945. Vikram Sarabhai is now hailed as the father of the Indian Space Programme. In 1950, the Department of Atomic Energy was founded with Homi Bhabha as its Secretary. The Department provided funding for space research throughout India. Space Research was further encouraged by the technically inclined Prime Minister of India, Jawarhar Lal Nehru. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and opened up possibilities for the rest of the world to conduct a space launch. The Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was set up in 1962 by Jawarhar Lal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, which was later called ISRO. In 2008, India launched as many as 11 satellites, including nine from other countries and went on to become the first nation to launch 10 satellites on one rocket. ISRO is managed by the Department of Space (DoS) of the Government of India. Antrix Corporation is the marketing arm of ISRO; its job is to promote products, services and technology developed by ISRO. During the 1960s -1970s, India initiated its own launch vehicle program owing to geopolitical and economic considerations, the country developed a sounding rockets programme, and by the 1980s, researches has yielded the Satellite launch Vehicle with Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV), being the first and fully equipped with operational supporting infrastructure. ISRO’s first launch was held in 1987, before the ASLV was decommissioned. ISRO further applied its energies to the advancement of launch vehicle technology resulting in the creation of Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) technologies. India’s first satellite, the Aryabhata, was launched by the Soviet Union on 19 April 1975 from Kapustin Yar using a Cosmos-3M launch vehicle. This was followed by the Rohini series of experimental satellites, which were built and launched indigenously. To satisfy the telecommunications, broadcasting, meteorology and search-and-rescue needs of India, ISRO launched The INSAT series which is the largest domestic communication system in the Asia-Pacific Region. It is a joint venture of the Department of Space, Department of Telecommunications, India Meteorological Department, All India Radio and Doordarshan. To provide remote sensing services to the country, ISRO launched The IRS series which is the largest collection of remote sensing satellites for civilian use in operation today in the world. ISRO also has Radar Imaging Satellites that provides images with coarse, fine and high spatial resolutions. India also operates RISAT-2, which was launched in 2009 acquired from Israel at a cost $110 million. ISRO has also launched a set of experimental geostationary satellites known as the GSAT series. Kalpana-1, ISRO’s first dedicated meteorological satellite, was launched by the
Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle on 12 September 2002. In February 2003 it was renamed to Kalpana-1 by the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in memory of Kalpana Chawla – a NASA astronaut of Indian origin who perished in Space Shuttle Columbia. To monitor the ocean surface and sea-levels, ISRO has launched the Indo-French satellite SARAL on 25 February 2013. During the 18th SAARC summit held in Nepal in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mooted the idea of a satellite serving the needs of SAARC member nations, part of his Neighbourhood first policy. One month after sworn in as Prime Minister of India, in June 2014 Modi asked ISRO to develop a SAARC satellite, which can be dedicated as a ‘gift’ to the neighbours. It is a satellite for the SAARC region with 12 Ku-band transponders (36 MHz each) and launched using the Indian Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle GSLV Mk-II. The total cost of launching the satellite is estimated to be about ₹2,350,000,000 (₹235 crore). The cost associated with the launch was met by the Government of India. The satellite enables full range of applications and services in the areas of telecommunication and broadcasting applications viz television (TV), direct-to-home (DTH), very small aperture terminals
(VSATs), tele-education, telemedicine and disaster management support. The Ministry of Civil Aviation has decided to implement an indigenous Satellite-Based Regional GPS Augmentation System also known as Space-Based Augmentation System (SBAS) as part of the Satellite-Based Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS)/Air Traffic Management (ATM) plan for civil aviation. The Indian SBAS system has been given an acronym GAGAN – GPS Aided GEO Augmented Navigation. A national plan for satellite navigation including implementation of Technology Demonstration System (TDS) over the Indian air space as a proof of concept has been prepared jointly by Airports Authority of India (AAI) and ISRO. To provide two types of services, namely, Standard Positioning Service (SPS) and Restricted Service (RS), ISRO has developed an autonomous regional satellite navigation, which is under total control of Indian government. The requirement of such a navigation system is driven by the fact that access to Global Navigation Satellite Systems like GPS is not guaranteed in hostile situations (discussed below).
ISRO has successfully launched the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle C37 into orbit. This rocket launched 104 satellites of which three are Indian, 88 are from the USA and the rest from Germany, Israel, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates. The previous record was held by Russia’s Dnepr rocket which launched 37 satellites into space, but India’s achievement today overshoots that by a long margin.
The PSLV-C37 cost a measly $15 million to launch. In comparison, it costs SpaceX roughly $60 million to do the same. NASA used to spend north of $100 million to send satellites into space, a cost so high that they found SpaceX to be a far lucrative offer. India, of all the space-capable nations, has the lowest cost for sending satellites into space. ISRO’s other major achievement was the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) or the Mangalyaan mission as it was fondly called. The Mars Orbiter was launched in November 2013, was India’s first inter-planetary mission and cost the nation just
$73 million (Rs. 450 crore). It was also the least expensive mission to Mars ever. In comparison, NASA’s MAVEN Mars Orbiter cost $672 million.
India is a nation known for keeping its costs low. Currently, the PSLV launched 104 satellites into space for a cost of $15 million. It should be noted that the PSLV is not a reusable rocket. While SpaceX still struggle to get their Falcon 9 rockets to land reliably after re-entry, ISRO has already successfully tested the Reusable satellite Launch Vehicle (RLV) in 2016. While ISRO already offers incredibly lucrative pricing for satellite launches, successfully deploying a reusable flight system would bring down costs even further.
The PSLV system has been used 39 times for launching payload into Low Earth Orbit. Of these 39 launches, ISRO has suffered only one true failure, the maiden flight of the PSLV rocket in 1993. The 1997 launch was considered a partial failure because the rocket failed to launch the satellite into the desired circular orbit. However, the satellite could propel itself into orbit and was not lost. SpaceX has
suffered two notable failures, one of the CRS-7 139 seconds into flight and the more recent explosion of the AMOS-6 while it was on the Launchpad, being loaded with propellant. Both the failures came with a significant cost to not just SpaceX, but the companies whose payload was being launched into orbit. India’s ISRO has an edge over the competitors when it comes to safety and consistency. In case you didn’t know, the Mars Orbiter Mission was the first time India attempted an interplanetary mission and nailed it in its first attempt.
India’s space program isn’t just about launching satellites into space. The Space Agency has lofty goals in-line with the global leaders; exploration of our solar system being one among them. ISRO is currently working on sending a probe to Venus, the second planet, and possibly the most hostile, in our solar system. In fact, ISRO has a mission to Mars and Venus slated for 2021-2022 time frame. While France has expressed strong interest in collaborating on building the next Mars Rover for India’s mission to Mars, Michael M. Watkins, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA, said that the agency was keen on putting a telematics module which would enable NASA’s rover to talk to India’s satellites. Watkins further said that NASA would definitely be willing to partner in India’s
maiden voyage to Venus as so little is known about the planet. NASA and ISRO have already initiated talks on trying to jointly undertake studies on using electrical propulsion for powering this mission. Former ISRO chairman K. Kasturirangan says, “India should be part of this global adventure and exploring Venus and Mars is very worthwhile since humans definitely need another habitation beyond Earth.” The Indian Space Research Organization has been making great strides in the last
few years. While NASA has seen significant budget cuts in the last few years, ISRO just received a boost in funding thanks to the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley giving the Department of Space a 23% increase in operating budget this year.
2017: Second development launch of PSLV with IRNSS-1H on board failed because the heat shield did not separate.
2013: The failure of clocks on IRNSS-1A.
December 25, 2010: GSLV-F06 launch unsuccessful due to snag in stage-1.
April 15, 2010: GSLV-D3 developmental flight carrying GSAT4 onboard. Failure. Plunges into sea.
July 10, 2006: Second operational flight of GSLV (GSLV-F02) with INSAT-4C onboard. Satellite could not be placed in orbit. Rocket falls into sea.
September 20, 1993: First developmental launch of PSLV with IRS-1E on board. Satellite could not be placed in orbit.
July 13, 1988: Second developmental launch of ASLV with SROSS-2 onboard. Satellite could not be placed in orbit.
March 24, 1987: First developmental launch of ASLV with SROSS-1 satellite on board. Satellite could not be placed in orbit.
August 10, 1979: First experimental launch of SLV-3 with Rohini Technology Payload onboard. Satellite could not be placed in the orbit.
India only has half the number of satellites it requires to meet its needs, ranging from data services to weather prediction. So, the loss of each satellite is painful. Many of these Satellites could have boosted communication in difficult terrains and cellular blind spots like deserts and snow-clad mountains with the use of small hand-held devices. The other service of strategic importance is navigation. Most service providers and institutions rely on GPS, a navigation system developed by the US. The development of an indigenous GPS called NavIC is considered vital to protecting India’s strategic interests, a point that was driven home during the Kargil war in 1999 when the US denied India access to GPS, hampering military operations.
ISRO’s upcoming satellite ‘The Aditya-L1’ has already been approved and will be launched sometime in 2019-2020. The launch will take place around the beginning of the upcoming solar cycle, an event in which sunspots form and grow on the solar surface, before eventually diminishing over a period of 11 years. To be precise, it will unveil the secrets of the Sun.