Monday, September 17, 2012

India scores in space
By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is a state-owned entity rare in the country for meaning business and actually delivering. Last week, the agency marked its 100th mission by successfully deploying into orbit a French Earth observation satellite and a Japanese micro-satellite, using its workhorse single-entry Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

"As ISRO's 100th space mission, today's launch is a milestone in our nation's space capabilities,'' said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who watched the launch live at ISRO's space center at Sriharikota, north of Chennai.

Defending India's space program and the budgets involved, Manmohan said, "Questions are asked whether a poor country
like India can afford a space program.This misses the point that a nation's state of development is finally a product of its technological prowess.''

ISRO is estimated to have spent 200 billion rupees (US$3.6 billion) of taxpayers' money over the past five years on its multiple space-related activities and research.

The organization has come a long way since in 1975 it launched its first satellite, Aryabhatta, on a Russian rocket. Since then, ISRO has had success in developing two categories of rockets - the PSLVs, designed for Earth observation and scientific missions, and the larger Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLVs), which deliver heavy communications satellites into geostationary orbits 36,000 kilometers above the Earth where they can "hover'' over the same place.

For decades, ISRO was hobbled by US sanctions against dual-use technologies. Even so, it succeeded in copying blueprints from its Cold War partner, the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Over the past seven to eight years, as Indo-US relations have substantially improved, US restrictions on ISRO have been removed, easing access to the latest technologies. With Russia no longer the power it was, ISRO has managed to create an independent equity for itself in the market.

Beginning 1999, ISRO began to establish itself as a global player in the competitive satellite launching business though it still has to hone its ability to launch very heavy satellites, for which it still depends on Russia or Europe.

ISRO has to-date launched 29 foreign satellites, including the two last week, earning itself millions of dollars in revenues. "The launch of these [two] satellites on board an Indian launch vehicle is testimony to the commercial competitiveness of the Indian space industry and is a tribute to Indian innovation and ingenuity," Manmohan said.

India has made progress in missile technology alongside its strides in space research as the motors used in the satellite launch vehicles have been incorporated into missiles. The GSLV motors, for example, have formed critical stages of operations of the long-range Agni ballistic missiles that are capable of delivering nuclear payloads.

India, Pakistan and China are at various stages of developing attack as well as ballistic missile defense systems. With China, given its much superior abilities, actively involved in helping Pakistan's defense capabilities, India has been seeking help from the US and Israel to ramp up its own know-how.

This help may be essential, as India, otherwise, has a poor record in developing weapons indigenously, whether it is tanks or jet fighters.

ISRO has a busy calendar ahead with many domestic launches and overseas orders planned. Chairman K Radhakrishnan told reporters last week that the agency has plans for 58 missions (25 rockets and 33 satellites) through to 2017.

"The 25 rockets would include PSLV, GSLV and GSLV Mark III. The satellites include seven navigation satellites. Then there will be series of remote sensing, microwave and communication satellites,'' Radhakrishnan said.

ISRO is also planning India's second Moon mission, the Chandrayan-2, following the success of Chandrayan-I in 2008. Chandrayaan-2 aims to deploy a Russian-made vehicle on the Moon's surface. New Delhi has, however, made it clear that it is in no hurry to push for a manned mission to the Moon, unlike China. This is not likely to happen before 2020.

"Our plan was always to have a manned space flight program, which hopefully should begin around 2015. We can't think of a manned Moon mission anytime soon as several things have to be achieved before that," Radhakrishnan said.

An Indian Mars mission has also been recently approved by New Delhi. This will be one of the most challenging tasks that ISRO will undertake, with the goal of launching a scientific payload in November next year.

"The Mars mission is more challenging than the Chandrayaan-1 mission as it involves a voyage of 300 days and tracking the satellite with a deep space network,'' Radhakrishnan said. Given China's interest in inter-planetary missions to explore civilian, security and defense aspects, India will not like to be lagging behind.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at

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