Sun | May 26, 2019

India romances space

Published:Sunday | January 27, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Indian Space Research Organisation Chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan gestures during a press conference at their headquarters in Bangalore, India, on Friday, January 11, 2019.

India has a new dream, a deep conviction to launch an Indian into space from Indian soil on an Indian rocket, by 2022 which is before the 75th birthday of India’s independence.

Work has started at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which is expected to deliver this task for less than US$1.4 billion, possibly the cheapest human space flight ever to be undertaken in the world.

This confidence and promise come riding on the repeated successes that the Indian space agency has tasted in the past.

This mission, when it takes off, will make India the fourth country after Russia, the United States of America, and China, which have independent capabilities to launch humans into space.

China joined this select club in 2003, and the first man to be launched into space in 1961 was Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Neil Armstrong became the first American astronaut to set foot on the Moon in 1969.

Unlike other nations, India aspires to send a woman as the first astronaut, and the human space flight is part of a sustained long-term endeavour. Dr K. Sivan, chairman of ISRO, says, “Not far into the future, humanity will definitely colonise space and 1.3 billion Indians just can’t be left behind, so as a first step, an Indian son or daughter will be launched into a low Earth orbit and then to a space station, following which, human missions to the Moon and Mars will be considered.

India already has end-to-end capabilities in space technology, making and launching its own rockets, its own satellites, and in the area of application, the Indian space agency is considered one of the best.

With almost four dozen satellites in orbit in the Asia Pacific region, India is a leader. India has conducted a little over 60 launches from its space port at Sriharikota, situated on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Today, ISRO is considered a reliable low-cost launcher, and in 2017 in a single launch using the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) India set a world record of launching a flock of 104 satellites in a single mission.

In 2018, India conducted 17 space missions, and in 2019, Sivan has promised to undertake 32 missions, which will include India’s second visit to the Moon through Chandrayaan-2 (Chandra means moon in Hindi – Yaan means vehicle), which will include an orbiter, a lander and a six-wheel rover.

Mission to the moon

India hopes to land on the South Pole of the moon to conduct experiments on the lunar soil. India also set another global record when in 2014 its Mars-bound satellite, the Mangalyaan, reached the orbit of Mars, and India became the first country in the world to succeed in this difficult mission on its maiden attempt.

India has its very own purpose-built satellite-based navigation system, a kind of a ‘desi-GPS’ called the ‘Navigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC)’ system. NavIC, also known as the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), is an independent regional navigation satellite system that also aids India’s defence forces.

The only Indian ever to fly into space has been Wing Commander (Retd) Rakesh Sharma, who flew on a Russian mission in 1984 and he gives a thumbs up to India’s plans of sending astronauts into space using Gaganyaan saying that ‘a manned space flight is a natural corollary of every space programme that has attained a level of maturity – a coming of age, if you will’.

Towards this, the 16,000-strong space agency hopes to use the country’s heaviest launcher, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III or GSLV Mk-III. This 640-tonne, 43-metre rocket also dubbed the ‘Bahubali’ (one with extraordinary strength) and has had three successful flights. This Indian-made rocket can launch 10 tonnes into a low Earth orbit, which will be more than enough to send a crew into space, says ISRO. The Indian-made crew module has been made to accommodate a crew of three and it can store provisions to withstand a flight of up to one week in space.

India makes its space prowess available to the world and has launched 239 satellites for 28 different countries as of October, 2018, which includes countries like the USA, Canada, the UK, and Israel.

This year, scientists from ISRO will train participants from 17 countries in the art of making nano-satellites as part of a major global initiative. In 2017, on the advice of Prime Minister Modi, ISRO launched, free of cost, the South Asia Satellite, a 2,230 kilogram communications satellite that aims to provide satellite-based connectivity to India’s neighbours Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. This was a major effort in using space as a diplomatic tool to win friends on Earth.

By 2021, in a collaborative venture, India and the USA will launch the world’s most expensive earth imaging satellite ever to be made at cost of a whopping $1.4 billion. The NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) will be launched from India and it will among other things help track climate change.

Sivan says, “Failure is not an option.” The ebullient rocket scientist adds that “team ISRO will rise to the challenge to make sure that an Indian is launched into space by 2022”.

Sriharikota, India’s spindle-shaped – until recently – uninhabited island awaits the first crew to be sent where few humans have dared to go!

- Pallava Bagla follows the space programme very closely and is the author of the book ‘Reaching for the Stars: India’s Journey for Mars and Beyond’, published by Bloomsbury. He can be reached at Pallava.bagla@gmail.com or Twitter: @pallavabagla.