Script: Abhay, Journalist
Last month, India broke a record. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched a whopping 104 satellites into orbit, beating the previous record—37 satellites on a Russian rocket in 2014. The deployment was a remarkable feat and proud moment for the Indian space community and the entire nation. Recognising the tremendous feat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “India salutes our scientists.” The launch of a large number of satellites was possible because all but one of the satellites were nano-satellites (nanosats) weighing 10 kg (about 20 pounds). The majority of them were from the United States, two were from India, and there was one each from Kazakhstan, Israel, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates. The only non-nanosat was from ISRO, designed for imagining and mapping applications. It weighed more than 1,500 pounds.
It was indeed a great feat. Engineers had to calculate precise trajectories and carefully choreograph the satellites unfurling. There were no crashes. Mission accomplished. This wasn’t the first time ISRO won international headlines for its savvy engineering. Back in 2014, the organization placed a spacecraft called Mars Orbiter Mission in orbit around the red planet. India was the fourth country to do this—after the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency—and the only country to do so on its first try. What’s more, the mission, which was more of a technology demonstration than a scientific investigation, was comparably cheap: reportedly only $73 million. In contrast, NASA’s most recent Mars orbiter, MAVEN, loaded with cutting-edge scientific instruments and launched in 2013, cost $671 million.
These days, ISRO is in the news. The Indian government continues to boost its budget year after year. The organization is planning an orbiter-lander-rover mission back to the moon (its first was an orbiter in 2008) and another satellite mission to Mars. It’s also considering an orbiter to Venus to study the planet’s hot and cloudy atmosphere. All this in the midst
ISRO has a busy launch schedule in the near future for its reliable polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) rocket, the one that pushed those 104 satellites into orbit. In 2008, ISRO launched only two PSLVs; in 2016, it launched six. The organization is targeting 12 to 18 launches a year by 2020 to put ever more satellites around Earth for imaging and communication purposes.
In the early days, the goals of ISRO were significantly different from those of the United States and the Soviet Union, which were focused on human space exploration. Instead, India was keen to develop its satellite capabilities for mapping and surveying crops and damage from natural disasters and erosion, for instance. It also used satellite communication to bring telemedicine and telecommunication to remote rural areas.
ISRO’s founder, Vikram Sarabhai, said as much when arguing that a developing nation like India would need space: “We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or other planets or manned space-flight,” he said, “but we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.”
ISRO is working on adding a significant boost to its rockets. In order to even get MOM, which was launched on a PSLV, to Mars, the orbiter had to take extra spins around Earth using its own thrusters to boost it ever higher so that it could eventually escape the planet’s gravity. A forthcoming cryogenic engine could solve the power problem. Days after the launch of the 104 satellites, ISRO completed the last ground test of its new cryogenic engine, which cools fuel to ultra-low temperatures, giving a rocket more bang for the buck.
While the cryogenic engine will no doubt help India’s exploration of the solar system, it will also fuel the nations own satellite programs. Current satellite applications range from TV broadcasting, telecommunication, and homeland security to urban planning, real estate, land management, just to name a few, says an ISRO official. “Having a fleet of Earth observation, communication and navigation satellites for a subcontinent like India is a necessity and not a luxury