by G Madhavan Nair,
Secretary, Department of Space
The Indian space programme turned a full circle when India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C8) successfully launched AGILE, a satellite of the Italian Space Agency, in April 2007 under a commercial agreement. India has come a long way from using satellites of other nations to demonstrate the application of space technology for societal benefits in the 70’s, using rockets of other space agencies to launch Indian experimental and, later, operational satellites to the present enviable status of building its own satellites and rockets to launch not only for Indian users but also of other countries. The 350 kg AGILE was precisely injected in the intended 550 km circular orbit, unequivocally demonstrating the maturity in this complex technology.
Earlier, in January 2007, there was jubilation for another major landmark. The Space capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE-1) was launched by PSLV and later successfully recovered from the Bay of Bengal. This marked the beginning of a new era for the Indian space programme – that of not only providing a platform for the scientists to conduct experiments in the micro gravity environment of space and return the samples safely back to earth, but also, demonstrating India’s capability in mastering critical technologies like aero-thermodynamics, recovery through deceleration and floatation system, navigation, guidance and control. All these technologies are important for re-recoverable and reusable launch vehicles as well as to undertake manned space missions.
Establishing Indigenous Systems
The Indian space programme started modestly in the 1960’s with the launching of small sounding rockets to investigate the ionosphere over the magnetic equator that passes over Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram. In the past decades, despite being a developing economy with its attendant problems, India has been able to successfully master space technology and, more importantly, use it effectively for deriving benefits for the society at grassroots level. Today, INSAT and Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) Satellite System form important elements of the national developmental infrastructure. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV, and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, GSLV, have been designed and built in the face of several geo-political challenges, have made the space programme self-reliant, indeed a credit to the homegrown engineers and scientists.
INSAT System – A Communication Backbone
INSAT System is the largest domestic communication satellite system in the Asia Pacific region with ten satellites in operation carrying a total of 200 transponders for communication and broadcasting services including direct-to-home service besides meteorological instruments for providing meteorological services.
Today, more than 55,000 VSATs - both in private and government sectors - are operating through INSAT. This has enabled the expansion of television coverage with more than 40 Doordarshan and 50 private TV channels operating through INSAT. Direct-To-Home television services have become a reality. There have been several innovative applications of INSAT system. EDUSAT, launched in September 2004, is the first thematic satellite dedicated exclusively for educational services. It is providing a wide range of educational delivery modes like one-way TV broadcast, interactive TV, video conferencing, computer conferencing, web-based instructions, etc. More than 10,000 classrooms are connected in the EDUSAT network. Telemedicine is another example. Space-based telemedicine has enabled the population in the remotest parts to access super specialty medical care. Already, there are 230 hospitals connected in the telemedicine network including 190 in remote and rural areas and 40 super specialty hospitals in major cities.
Meteorological data from INSAT is used for weather forecasting and specially designed disaster warning receivers have been installed in vulnerable coastal areas for direct transmission of warnings against impending disaster like cyclones.
The major emphasis in the coming years will be to meet the growing demand for transponders by progressively increasing the capacity to about 500 transponders. An Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS), with a constellation of seven satellites is also being established over the next 6-7 years to provide navigation and timing services over the Indian subcontinent. IRNSS will be an important component of the Indian strategy for establishing an indigenous and independent satellite navigation system.
IRS - Monitoring Nation’s Natural Wealth
With seven satellites in operation, Indian Remote Sensing satellite system (IRS) is the largest civilian remote sensing satellite constellation in the world providing imageries in a variety of spatial resolutions and spectral bands. The latest, CARTOSAT-2, launched in January 10, 2007, provides one meter spatial resolution.
The data from IRS satellites is used for a variety of applications including groundwater prospect mapping, crop acreage and production estimation, potential fishing zone forecasting based on chlorophyll and sea surface temperature, biodiversity characterisation, detailed impact assessment of watershed development projects, generation of natural resources data/information, etc.
In order to reach space-based services directly to the rural population, establishment of Village Resource Centres (VRC) has been recently initiated with the participation of NGOs. VRCs provide a variety of space based products and services such as tele-education; telemedicine; information on natural resources; interactive advisories on agriculture, fisheries, land and water resources management; livestock management; interactive vocational training towards livelihood support; etc. So far, 200 VRCs have been set up.
Space systems also help in disaster management through creation of database for facilitating hazard zonation and damage assessment, monitoring of major natural disasters using satellite and aerial data and strengthening the communication backbone for timely dissemination of information and emergency support.
An important addition in the coming years will be the microwave remote sensing satellite, RISAT, which will provides all-weather remote sensing capability important for applications in agriculture and disaster management.
Self Reliance in Advanced Technologies
India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) are now used for launching the remote sensing and communication satellites. So far, PSLV has had ten consecutively successful flights including the one in April 2007 that launched the Italian AGILE. GSLV can launch 2 to 2.5 tonne satellite into Geo-synchronous Transfer Orbit, GTO (200 km by 36,000 km).
The immediate target is to complete the development of GSLV Mk III capable of launching 4 tonne class communication satellites. Technology development and demonstration missions on reusable launch vehicle including space recovery technologies and air breathing propulsion are also envisaged. The success of launching the Space Capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE-1) and its recovery in January 2007 is an important landmark in this direction.
Contributing to Scientific Knowledge
Indian space programme encompasses research in atmospheric sciences, planetary and geosciences and theoretical physics. There are ground facilities like Mesosphere-Stratosphere-Troposphere Radar at Tirupati and Udaipur Solar Observatory. A series of sounding rockets are available for atmospheric experiments. Several scientific instruments have been flown on satellites especially to detect celestial X-ray and gamma-ray bursts.
India has now embarked on a major mission, Chandrayaan-1. It is an Indian scientific mission to moon planned by 2008. The objective is high resolution mapping of the moon in visible, near infrared, low energy X-ray and high-energy X-ray regions and prepares a 3-dimensional atlas of regions of scientific interest. The spacecraft will carry six primary Indian scientific instruments besides two from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of USA, three instruments from the European Space Agency and another from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences is also to be included.
ASTROSAT is another major initiative. This satellite, to be launched during 2008, will be useful for multi-wavelength studies of a variety of celestial sources and phenomena using a cluster of X-ray astronomy instruments and Ultraviolet imaging telescope.
Follow-on missions to Chandrayaan-1 and ASTROSAT are also envisaged for pursuing scientific exploration. Besides, small satellite missions for scientific studies in the areas of solar physics, earth’s near space environment, inner magnetosphere and atmospheric aerosol and trace gases are also proposed. Further, with the primary interest to understand the origin and evolution of solar system, technology development could be initiated in the coming years towards exploration of Mars, Asteroids and comets.
The capabilities created under the Indian space programme are bringing in commercial benefits too. Antrix Corporation Limited was specially created in 1992 under the Department of Space to market space services and hardware in the international market. ANTRIX provides transponders on lease and remote sensing data services as well as launch services. It also provides technical services for launch and early-orbit-phase mission support and in-orbit testing for satellites of other countries. ANTRIX has been profitable throughout registering an annual growth rate of about 20 percent in the past few years. The overall revenue of ANTRIX was Rs 414 crore during 2005-06, which is expected to cross Rs 500 crore this year.
A recent foray has been the contract with a European company for joint development of communication satellites for the international market.
ANTRIX’s vision is to further expand its market share in fields such as remote sensing imageries, commercial satellites and infrastructure services in space for broadcasting and other emerging services like mobile communication and positioning systems. It also envisions strengthening the role of Indian industries and would develop alliances with other major global players to make forays into new markets in the developing part of the world.
Towards Manned Space Mission
Space has emerged as the next frontier of human kind. Involvement of human beings in space for building and maintaining space assets will become important in the coming decades and it will be necessary to initiate the activities towards manned missions by developing critical technologies. The immediate objective will be to develop a fully autonomous manned space vehicle – in about 8-10 years — which could be launched by India’s GSLV and can carry a two-member crew to low earth orbit and safely return to earth.
The Indian space programme, while meeting the developmental needs of the nation through establishment of space systems in a self reliant manner, is poised to expand further and play an increasing role in the national developmental efforts besides substantially contributing to the exploration of space, the next frontier of mankind.