When space is no longer distant

a leap forward

When space is no longer distant

The recent launch of PSLV-C37 with 104 satellites has been widely acknowledged and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been receiving accolades for being successful uninterruptedly. With its humble beginnings in the ’70s, with focus mostly on the satellites space launch vehicles, ISRO has come a long way to taking up actual moonshot projects like Chandrayaan-I and Mangalyaan-I.

The PSLV-C37 launch has put into orbit 104 satellites: three from India, 96 from USA, and one each from The Netherlands, Switzerland, Israel, Kazaksthan and UAE. It is interesting to note that of the total 1,378 kg payload, including the weight of all satellites, it was Cartosat-2 that weighed most with 714 kg. The rest included two more of ISRO’s nano satellites, INS-1 and INS-2.

These were technology demonstration satellites and weighed 8.4 kg and 9.7 kg respectively. The remaining 101 satellites weighed between 1.1 kg to 4.7 kg each. The majority that were launched fall under a new breed of satellites referred to as nano satellites. This is one of the reasons that helped ISRO to notch up the record. Nevertheless, one cannot undermine the advances in sciences and precision in engineering that have made this possible.

Given this stupendous success, it is worthwhile to reflect briefly on its humble beginnings and the key ingredients that has shaped ISRO what it is today. Perhaps,  ISRO should now embrace itself to face more challenges for it to be on the competitive path. More than ISRO gearing up to it, it is key that the policy makers shape the rules of this game to make it more competitive and geared up to take on more challenging tasks.

The success of ISRO has deep roots in harnessing the science that has been carried out largely at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) without much fanfare. On National Science Day, observed on February 28 every year, it is befitting to reflect on what aspects of science and engineering have shaped Indian space research and ISRO to be what they are today.

Key aspects

ISRO’s success can be attributed to at least three key scientific and engineering domains that have helped shape the space programme: aerospace engineering, materials science, and electrical communications engineering. The Aerospace Engineering department at Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru is the oldest department in the country and was established in 1942 to support Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in Bengaluru. The required capabilities for designing a launch vehicle was known and accessible.

Support also came from the Materials Engineering department that was established in 1945. Materials Engineering aided in the manufacturing of the launch vehicles and satellites’ outer cover by using appropriate materials and composites that can tolerate extreme temperatures. The Electrical Communications Engineering department was carved out of the Electrical Technology department in 1946 at IISc. The science and engineering here aided in ensuring that all the communications from the ground control stations and the satellites were in place.

All the three departments at IISc have played a key role in ensuring the right
application of research carried out into these launch vehicles and satellites. More importantly, these departments have trained thousands of engineers and scientists who have led and shaped different facets of the Indian space programme. Research carried out at IISc is still being used and applied in different aspects across different entities of ISRO.

Beyond science and engineering that is important in ensuring all this, the organisational design and techno-managerial approach employed at ISRO has also been crucial to its success despite being a public sector organisation. What will be of interest is to take a leaf out of ISRO’s success and shape a host of such organisations in the country in a similar way.

Besides the science and engineering that helped shape the space programme, there have been other domains that have been greatly benefited from this. Notably, satellite communication through INSAT series that has provided the much-needed self-reliance for meteorology, telecommunications and broadcasting. This has
resulted in enhancing weather monitoring and forecasts, widespread coverage of
television and radio, and pervasive adoption of mobile phone-based communication systems across the nation. In many ways, the boom of television and communication in the country is because of the technological backbone that ISRO facilitated.

Beyond the tangible benefits in telecommunication and meteorology, there have been significant efforts in understanding our earth systems and space too. A host of satellite remote sensing satellites have been aiding in better monitoring of land systems. Furthermore, through a host of astronomy- and astrophysics-related programmes at IISc, Indian Institute of Astrophysics and Raman Research Institute, newer insights of the ever-expanding space are being given. The Astrosat that was launched in September 2015 is a step  in this direction.

Bringing in private players

Moving on, it is crucial to know how policy changes can help ISRO and a host of Indian enterprises lead the space programme in the global arena. As it stands, ISRO is the only organisation allowed to launch space vehicles in the country.

Perhaps with private participation, it can further boost the research and innovation in the space segment and may very well position India to lay a significant claim on the estimated US$ three billion market. With ISRO alone, it can be a daunting task. However, with the right private participation and regulation, it can mean more jobs and also give a boost to the manufacturing industry in the country.

Beyond launch vehicles, the same could be extended to the satellites too. We have seen Edusat and a bunch of satellites designed by the universities in India, but there has not been visible private participation in this arena. With regard to accessing high resolution satellite remote sensing data, an Indian citizen still has to rely on the National Remote Sensing Centre, an arm of ISRO. It is the only agency authorised to obtain them.

In the US, besides the remote sensing satellites of NASA, there are a host of private operators that are well regulated by the US Department of Defense. Some of the notable such products by private players are QuickBird, a high-resolution commercial earth observation satellite that collects black and white imagery at 61 cm resolution, and IKONOS, a commercial earth observation satellite that collects publicly available high-resolution imagery at one- and four-metre resolution.

The notable private entrants to this arena in India are Team Indus and Astrome. Team Indus is building a privately-funded spacecraft that is capable of soft landing on the Moon. Astrome, on the other hand, has plans to beam Internet through satellites it is building. But it still has to rely on ISRO for launching them.

The time is ripe for the policy makers to open the space segment for private participation and ride on the success of ISRO and all the available talent to take India forward. Beyond moonshots, India should now set its eyes to the next level.

(The author is with Gubbi Labs, a Bengaluru-based research collective)

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