A Century in Orbit for ISRO

The launch of ISRO’s 100th satellite
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These launches aren’t just meant to boost national pride. They also have a commercial angle to it

AN ENDURING IMAGE of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is that of its ‘rocket women’. Women scientists dressed in Kanjeevaram saris and jasmine flowers in their hair, hugging each other in jubilation as their male colleagues look on. When was the last time you saw women scientists celebrate a space mission, some asked. The picture shows that women don’t need to wear lab coats, others said. It was a picture that mingled cutting-edge modern science with tradition.

And this mix of tradition and science is not something that is hard to find at India’s premier space agency. It is not uncommon, for instance, for the ISRO chief to look heavenwards before a launch. Back in 2013, much to the chagrin of Indian rationalists, a day before the landmark Mars Orbiter Mission, the then ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan visited the Tirupati temple and placed a replica of the Mars Orbiter at the deity’s feet. Recently, following a time-honoured tradition, a news magazine asked the incoming ISRO Chief K Sivan if he was a believer in God. And Sivan lived up to his predecessors. “Certainly, yes,” he said. “Learning science does not mean knowing about everything... I believe in and respect the supreme force that runs this universe.”

A decade ago, few countries and experts would have given this space agency, so invested in tradition and faith, much chance to achieve its aspiration of becoming a part of the global elite that successfully carries out ambitious space exploration programmes. When India put its Mangalyaan robotic probe into orbit around Mars in 2014, The New York Times carried a cartoon—which for some inexplicable reason many found derogatory—of a farmer with a cow knocking at a door marked ‘Elite Space Club’ where two men reading of the feat in a newspaper are seen listening to the knock with anxious faces.

And yet, here we stand, with the space agency having won itself another big feather for its cap: ISRO put its 100th satellite in orbit. This satellite, a weather monitoring one, Cartosat-2 series, was launched with 29 smaller satellites from different countries sequentially during a window of two hours.

In the last few years, ISRO has had a remarkable journey, successfully carrying out several space missions. Most notably, last year, it launched a record 104 satellites in a single launch, and later that year, its heaviest, most powerful rocket, the GSLV Mark III, developed entirely at home and which ISRO scientists gleefully explained was as heavy as 200 adult Asian elephants.

These launches, however, aren’t just meant to boost national pride. They also have a commercial angle to it. A new space race is poised for take off. There are a vast number of governmental and private agencies that with or without the capability of launching satellites want to put these in space, for various activities, from earth imaging and remote sensing to internet coverage and communication. One of the big events of the new space age is going to be the launch of Elon Musk’s SpaceX , which plans to install what it calls a constellation of small satellites to provide internet coverage to every part of the planet.

It is estimated that the satellite launch market, worth nearly $6 billion already, is getting increasingly lucrative. But most of these revenues are taken by the US, France and Russia, which account for three of every four dollars spent on launches. India is estimated to have a share of under 1 per cent.

With India’s successful launches—at a fraction of a cost of launches by others—ISRO makes a strong pitch that in its fledgling commercial arm, Antrix Corp, a reliable low-cost option is available for launching a vast variety of satellites.

As a new chief takes over, 2018 looks like it will be another busy year at the space agency. The outgoing chief, AS Kiran Kumar, recently announced that budgets for the years 2018-19 and 2019-20 have been increased. (ISRO reportedly had a budget of about Rs 9,000 crore for 2017-18.) And that ISRO will be aiming for a launch every month this year.

ISRO has announced that the Government will be funding the space agency’s efforts to develop an exclusive Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) to go along with its current Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLVs). There is growing demand from the private sector and research institutions to put small payloads into low orbit for space data, and such a launcher, ISRO claims, can cater exclusively to mini and micro satellites. There is also Chandrayaan 2, the country’s follow-up to its groundbreaking lunar mission launched in 2008, which will comprise an orbiter, lander and rover, all developed in- house. This will be launched on a GSLV rocket, considered to be the key to India’s future interplanetary and Mars missions.

All said, ISRO’s calendar shall keep its admirers cheering for some time to come. Here’s to another year of landmark launches and Kanjeevaram saris and jasmine flowers.