January 02, 2013

The Indian Space Programme in 2012: A Review


Radhakrishna Rao

January 2, 2013

By all means, 2012 can be considered a watershed year for the Indian space programme. The programme had begun modestly in November 1963 with the launch of a 9-kg sounding rocket from a modest facility in the fishing hamlet of Thumba on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. 2012 saw the 100th space mission of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). On September 9, 2012, the four stage workhorse PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) orbited the 720-kg French remote sensing satellite Spot-6 along with the 15-kg Japanese Proiteres probe as a piggy back payload on commercial terms, and in the process helped ISRO complete the saga of a “space century”. The significance of the mission lay in the fact that the PSLV, considered a highly reliable space vehicle, launched the heaviest ever satellite of an international customer on commercial terms.

The PSLV has so far launched 29 satellites for international customers on commercial terms. Its versatility lies in the fact that it can launch satellites into a variety of orbits. But then ISRO’s continued dependence on a single operational launch vehicle in the form of the PSLV implies that heavier class home grown INSAT/GSAT series of communications satellites are hoisted into space by means of procured launch services. Not surprisingly then the 3,400-kg GSAT-10 satellite carrying 30 communications transponders and a payload designed to support the Gagan satellite based, civilian aircraft navigation and management system was launched by the Araine-5 vehicle in September 2012. The continued dependence on Ariane-5 for deploying the heavier class Indian communications satellites not only implies a huge foreign exchange outgo but also makes for a far from sound strategic approach. For, in the context of the rapidly shifting global geopolitical dynamics, the timely accessibility to a procured launch service could become a difficult and challenging proposition in the years ahead.

Indeed, the failure of ISRO to qualify the home grown cryogenic engine stage, meant to power the three-stage Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), has forced India to go in for commercial launch services to get its heavier class communications satellites off the ground. The long delay in mastering the complexities of the cryogenic propulsion system based on liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen mix implies that there are serious challenges ahead in putting in operational mode the GSLV-MKII capable of placing a 2.5-tonne class satellite and the high performance GSLV-MKIII capable of deploying a 4-tonne class satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbits. The failure of the two GSLV missions during 2010—one with a home grown upper cryogenic stage and the other with a Russian origin cryogenic engine stage—proved to be a setback for the Indian launch vehicle development programme.

Though ISRO had planned a GSLV-MKII launch with an indigenous upper cryogenic stage during 2012, it stood postponed to 2013. The qualification of a 400-tonne plus GSLV is critical for ISRO to sustain some of its high profile projects including the Chandrayaan-II mission slated for take off sometime during the middle of this decade. The Chandrayaan-II mission to the moon, which would feature an Indian orbiter and rover and a Russian lander, is a follow up to India’s maiden lunar probe Chandrayaan-1 launched in 2008.

Nevertheless, the successful launch of India’s fully home grown microwave earth imaging satellite RISAT-1 by means of a PSLV flight in April 2012 stood out as a sort of achievement for ISRO. For, very few countries have built up the technological expertise to engineer an all weather remote sensing satellite like RISAT-1, which is capable of collecting data even under conditions of cloud, darkness, haze and dust storm. RISAT-1 can be harnessed for both civilian and defence applications. It can be used for disaster prediction and monitoring agricultural dynamics as well as for surveillance by the armed forces.

Though ISRO had hinted at a couple of space missions from the space port in Sriharikota island on India’s eastern coast before the end of 2012, these did not materialize. In particular, the launch of the Indo-French research satellite Saral by means of the core alone version of PSLV—without the usual six strap on boosters attached to the first stage—originally planned for the end of 2012 was postponed to the first quarter of 2013. ISRO has cited technical glitches as the reason for the postponement of this space mission. The 400-kg Saral built at the ISRO Satellite Centre in Bangalore is designed to monitor the circulation of oceanic currents and measurement of sea surface heights. This PSLV mission will also launch five small payloads of international customers on commercial terms.

ISRO also plans to launch the first of the seven satellites constituting the space segment of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) by means of a PSLV flight sometime in 2013. IRNSS makes for great strategic sense as it would free India from its dependence on the American GPS system whose specialized services at times are difficult to access. The Indian defence forces would stand to benefit from IRNSS for purposes ranging from location identification to launching precision weapons including long range missiles with a high degree of accuracy.

However, the highpoint of ISRO’s march into space would be the plan to launch India’s Mars probe in November 2013 when the earth moves closest to the Red planet. This is the earliest launch window available for the Indian Mars probe. The launch of the Indian Mars orbiter by means of an augmented version of the PSLV would make India the sixth country in the world to send a mission to the Red Planet. The Indian Mars mission will focus on life, climate, geology, origin, evolution and sustainability of life forms on the planet. ISRO considers the Rs. 4500-million Indian Mars probe, to be called Mangalyaan, as a major technology build up exercise for accelerating India’s forays into deep space. After the accomplishment of the Mars mission, ISRO plans to send probes to Venus and the asteroid belt.

But then India’s much talked of plan for a human space mission, which is yet to receive final clearance from the Government of India, has been kept in the backburner. Even as ISRO has done some preliminary ground work for identifying the cutting edge technologies for this high profile project, the country is yet to build up ”the infrastructure and capability” robust enough for this ”complex and challenging mission.” According to ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan, “A human space flight is a complex mission requiring a host of things such as a heavy rocket, re-entry vehicle, space capsule, space suit, environmental control, life support system and an escape system for the crew… As of now, we don’t have a programme to launch a human space flight over the next five years.”

In the ultimate analysis, both the planetary missions and human flight represent a dilution of the original philosophy with which the Indian space programme took off. In the late 1960s, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the architect of the Indian space programme, had elaborated:

“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 spaceflight. 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.”

In this context, ISRO points out that the societal commitment of the Indian space programme continues to be in an expansion mode even as efforts are on for forays into deep space.

In the context of fast expanding space missions resulting in a growing constellation of satellites, there is a concern in India over the safety of its space assets. This concern assumed serious dimensions in early 2007 when China successfully carried out an anti-satellite test followed by a well conceived plan for mastering the techniques of a full fledged space war. Of course, both ISRO and DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) have made it clear that India has all the resources required to engineer an anti-satellite system to take on a “rogue satellite”. In the aftermath of the successful flight test of India’s long range Agni-V missile in April 2012, DRDO chief V.K. Saraswat had noted that the “Agni-V launch has opened a new era. Apart from adding a new dimension to our strategic defence, it has ushered in fantastic opportunities in building anti satellite weapons.”

By all means India’s space weaponization programme, the realization of which is subject to the approval of the political leadership of the county, would stand to benefit enormously from the technological advances made by ISRO and DRDO. Not long ago, India’s Defence Minister A.K. Antony had wondered as to how long India would ”remain committed to the policy of the non weaponization of space even as counter space systems are emerging in India’s neighbourhood (read China).”But then India, which is officially committed to the peaceful uses of outer space, will find it difficult to go ahead with plans for developing the building blocks for engaging in a full fledged space war.


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