The same year when the USA had sent the first man on the moon and the revolutionary Apollo moon mission had been done and dusted with, a quiet little revolution was taking place in our very own India. The ISRO, every Indian’s source of pride and joy, was ready for birth. And on Independence Day of 1969, the ISRO was born- almost a month after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon!
Yes, a late start it was. In the initial days, India was much behind developed nations in terms of space research. Cut to 2017 and India has leap-frogged to the top of the pile in space research and innovations. Late start notwithstanding, today we are one of the leading lights in space sciences, alongside giants such as USA, China and Russia.
Spearheaded by the iconic Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Bhabha, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and others of their ilk, the tireless efforts of our scientists have catapulted India into the higher echelons of space research and endeavours in space. The impossible feats achieved by ISRO in their space program have made the entire world sit up and take notice.
Recent Milestones In Space-
In February 2017, ISRO launched 104 satellites into space over the course of 18 minutes from Sriharikota, thus breaking Russia’s record of 37 satellites launched into the earth’s orbit in a single day.
The launch was a precarious one, as all the satellites had to be released from a single rocket every few seconds. A single mistake in timing or track could have led to two successive satellites colliding with each other, thereby jeopardizing the mission. But the nifty calculations, sharp precision and sheer hard work of the ISRO team ensured a flawless, hitch-free operation.
The phenomenal success of the launch earned them praise from NASA, Elon Musk and all major countries. The PSLV-C37/Cartosat2 Series satellite mission included the primary satellite- Cartosat-2, 101 international nano satellites and two of its own nano satellites, INS-1A and INS-1B. Out of the international satellites, 96 belonged to the USA; five belonged to Israel, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Switzerland and UAE, respectively.
For international players, ISRO is now the go to agency when it comes to getting their satellites launched into orbit. This is in part due to their highly competitive rates and a spectacular success ratio of 100%. Elon Musk’s SpaceX charges around USD 60 million per satellite while ISRO charged around USD 3 million per satellite between 2013 and 2015.
In June 2016, ISRO had launched 20 satellites in one go, 19 of them foreign. In September 2016, we launched eight satellites in two different orbits- a complicated operation indeed. Besides these recent feats, Mangalyaan, the 2014 Mars mission, and Chandrayaan-I, the 2008 lunar mission, are still fresh in our collective consciousness.
With this launch of 104 satellites, we have re-iterated our aspiration to become world leaders in space technology and put our stamp of dominance on satellite launches across the world.
Despite these recent successes, ISRO has still a long way to go, according to chairman AS Kiran Kumar. As more and more government and public services are dependent on space technology, the demand for satellites is increasing exponentially. These satellites meet the needs of the government and private sector for managing natural resources, planning infrastructure projects, support for disaster management and forecasting weather, navigation and communication.
To meet this demand, ISRO must increase its capacity for launches from about 6-7 a year to around 12 a year and gradually to 24 a year by 2018. At present, China has around 20 satellite launches a year, as compared to India’s 6-7 a year.
In order to build capacity, ISRO plans to rope in Indian industry to support the Indian space program and to participate in the production of integrated systems and sub-systems, including assembly, testing and launches.
The areas where industries can contribute significantly are in the building of engines, manufacturing the various stages of rockets, propellant tanks, spacecraft, solar panels and thermal control systems, and building the electronics suites required for satellites and launch vehicles.
Besides a need to build capacity, ISRO also needs to look out for the reusable launch vehicles being developed by entities such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Musk has completed eight successful tests of his reusable technology and can release it anytime soon for commercial use.
Due to the reusable nature of these rockets, SpaceX can offer satellite launch rates that rival ISRO rates in cost-effectiveness. Although ISRO is also working on its own reusable satellite launch vehicle and has even tested it successfully, there’s still a long time to go for it to become operational.
Unless ISRO steps up its pace of innovation, it stands to lose the low-cost edge that it holds against other space agencies.