Role of ISRO in the future?

Fortune India did an interview with Chairman, ISRO Dr. S. Somanath. This was one of the exchanges in the interview.

Commercial human space travel is something which private players in some countries are offering. Can ISRO do this?

We can, but it is not our job. It is the job of the industry. ISRO is a national agency. ISRO can develop the technology. But the practice of government funding ISRO to develop technology is going to stop. If a technology is needed, it will be developed by ISRO and industry through government-industry funding. So, now, the industry will have to put money into technology development. They have to do some R&D and develop technology.

This is an interesting comment and perhaps provides an insight into how ISRO thinks of its evolving role in the new space policy regime in India post-2019.

NSIL, the Department of Space’s commercial arm signaled the intention to move to a demand-driven model in the space sector. As an example, GSAT-24 was India’s first demand-driven satellite that NSIL/ISRO built for Tata Play (DTH service provider).

If you read through the whole interview, you can see the lengths to which Somanath goes to protect ISRO’s role while trying to push the idea that industry must lead in the future. This is a new tension for ISRO to hold. I don’t think there is enough clarity on how this will happen for him to communicate the message well.

Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter

Zoomed in and edited using Snapseed. Image taken using Realme GT Master. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas

The question my wife had was how do the planets that are on either side of the Earth are seen together in the night sky.

A drawing to explain how Venus and Jupiter whose orbit is on either side of Earth can be seen together in the night sky. Drawing: Pradeep Mohandas

When we see from Earth, Jupiter must be on the other side of the Sun. Whereas, Venus could be between the Sun and Earth or between the Sun and Jupiter.

This is the first time that I tried to capture a celestial event with a mobile phone camera and edited it.

Star Party

It was the sight of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope by the Space Shuttle Discovery on Discovery Channel that shifted my interest from archaeology to astronomy. After the lift-off the Discovery Channel proceeded to show some of the fascinating images that the Hubble captured. I was in awe.

This anecdote also holds the confusion I held for the longest time. I did not know if I wanted to do astronomy or build rockets that would launch people and telescopes into orbit. I am not sure if I still have an answer to this question. The move towards engineering was pragmatic and not based on interest.

After marriage, my wife was interested in the bright objects in the night sky and did not mind me watching rocket launches because Indian rocket launches were few and far between. They were not as frequent as the SpaceX launches of today of almost one a week.

When our daughter was born in 2017, I told my wife that I will introduce our daughter to the night sky but wouldn’t try to push my hobbies on her. Keeping my promise, I had only introduced my 5 year-old daughter to the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Of these, my daughter only has trouble distinguishing between Jupiter and Saturn when they are both present in the night sky.

When the astronomy club in Pune, Jyotirvidya Parisanstha (JVP) organized a star party for the public, I forgot this promise to my wife and registered both of us (our daughter and myself) for the same. My wife could not travel as she had just given birth to our son last December.

I decided against going by car as I was not familiar with the location. We decided to travel in the bus provided by JVP.

We landed up around 4 pm at Shalimar Furniture at Swar Gate in Pune. We arrived there travelling in an Uber. My daughter was already impatient with the slow progress of our journey to the location of the Star Party.

I had told my daughter that we were going for a star party. The only other party she had attended thus far were three to four hour long birthday parties of her friends who all stayed in our neighborhood, which she reached in 20 minutes at the most. She would spend time at the birthday party playing with her friends or having samosas and snacks. She was excited nonetheless.

This Star Party was not her kind of party.

We travelled in a Tata Motors bus to a village in the outskirts of Pune called Naigaon. This was on the Pune – Bangalore Highway a little beyond the gate of Khed Shivpur about an hour from Swar Gate. The Star Party was held at Manali Agro Farm.

First up, it lived up to it’s name. It was probably colder than it was in Manali. My daughter had to wear her thermals, t-shirt, sweater and a blanket before she could shiver and speak. I only had an athleisure t-shirt and a sweater protecting me. JVP had warned in their email invitation and the programme that it would be very cold. The name also should have given ample warning and we should have probably prepared with winter wear we might have carried had we travelled to Manali.

As the team at JVP was setting up their telescopes (2 Cassegarian, 2 Newtonians and a Dobsonian), we spotted a few fast moving satellites in their orbit. They were most likely Earth observation satellites taking pictures of Earth from their perch in space. I also spotted the planet Venus with my daughter.

Venus was the first planet that the telescopes pointed to as people formed lines in front of them. We missed seeing the planet through the telescope. As the planet set in the western sky, we had the opportunity to see Jupiter and three of its moons through the telescope. I was not sure my daughter would be able to see the moons through the telescope but was happy when she could spot them easily.

Sarang then showed the constellations in the night sky with a pointer. We saw the body of Pegasus the Winged Horse, Cetus the Sea Monster, and spoke to us about Raashis and Nakshatras. I had heard these terms and now knew their significance and meaning.

He later shared stories from Indian and Greek mythologies. He had immense energy that comes from knowledge and passion. He spoke endlessly through the evening and then later in the night. He flawlessly mixed sharing the science of the night sky, the art of storytelling, and a healthy skepticism.

My daughter and I were able to see the Moon through the telescope. She described it as seeming like cheese. I told her about craters without delving too much into its violent history. She saw both the Moon and Jupiter through one of the Cassegarins. The other Cassegarin of the pair was having a hard time tracking in the beginning though the volunteers were able to fix it later in the night.

She did not eat any food at night. I ate the delicious Marathi dinner at the farm. There were a few slides and swings in the park but they were too cold to even sit on. She was immensely disappointed and spent the rest of the night sleeping on my lap. I did not feel confident about laying the mat on the floor and letting her sleep there ergo many people did.

I missed seeing the Pleiades (Rohini) and the Orion nebula through the telescope they had set out at night.

We reached in time as one of the JVP team members talked about imaging the comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) and how he stacked images one on top of the other and used software to get an image of the comet. The comet’s tail had grown faint in the image and it’s core also seemed to have broken. It was great to see a comet but were disappointed that we missed seeing it in all its glory.

A little past four in the morning, I wasn’t sure our cold protection systems could keep us protected from the cold any longer. So, I headed to the bus with a few of the other parents and caught up on some sleep. Although I was awake most of the night, I am not sure if I could stay awake most of the night.

Some of the other people missed Sarang’s story sessions and caught some well deserved sleep and spent the early morning watching the sky. We missed that part but I was happy that I could brush up on both my astronomy and mythological knowledge.

The star party was over at 7 in the morning and we headed back to Swar Gate around 7:30 am.

Regulation in the Space Sector

The space sector is compliance heavy. It needs to comply with various national and international laws. In the absence of national laws, compliance requirements are a la carte right now.

India’s private sector space regulator gave a few green signals this year. It authorised the launch of Skyroot’s sounding rocket from the Sounding Rocket Complex. It authorised the launch of satellites from Pixxel and Dhruva Space on the PSLV.

Right now, the regulator regulates only the private sector. It does not seem to regulate launches from NSIL. This is like the RBI not regulating public sector banks. This comparison does not stand up much because NSIL provides much better service and because the private sector is in its infancy.

The question to ask is how is the regulator, IN-SPACe building capacity to do its job? When there is a proliferation of startups in a sector that the Government has just opened up, how does a regulator provide adequate regulation?

India’s Space Policy – Sowing Now to Reap Later

Note from the Author: I wrote this piece in March 2022. I did not get around to publishing it anywhere. Hence, posting it here. Some of the information mentioned here is outdated.


India has pursued a space program since the 1960s with the intention of benefitting its people for the past sixty years. For this period, the program was dominated by a single government player with an innovative production capability nurtured through these years. But, the Indian government now wants private players to play a bigger role – to design products, develop them, and market them to the world. Against this backdrop, the Indian Government opened up the space sector in 2020. This led to the need to make policies and institutions that would help India tap into this hidden potential.

Opening up India’s Space Sector

The Union Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman announced the opening of eight sectors in May 2020 as part of the INR 20 lakh crore (USD 300 billion) Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (Self-reliant India Campaign). Space was one of the sectors that opened up as part of these reforms.

The Government said that it wanted the private sector to be a player in the space sector. She said that the Government would provide a level playing field for the non-governmental private entities to build satellites, launch vehicles, and provide space-based services. She promised that future planetary exploration and human outer space travel opportunities would be open to non-governmental private entities. Towards this, she promised access to facilities of India’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and a liberal geospatial policy.

India identified that space held a huge commercial potential for growth. It wanted non-governmental private entities (NGPEs) to be part of this growth. When the Government says NGPEs it is referring to academic institutions, start-ups, and industry. 

As a part of opening up the space sector, NewSpace India Ltd (NSIL), which was set up in the previous year, was repurposed to drive a move from a supply-driven to a demand-driven model. NSIL would act as an aggregator of demands from the market. It would then supply the services provided earlier by ISRO. For this, it would take over ownership of ISRO’s operational launch vehicle and satellite fleet. It would commercialize the production of the launch vehicle fleet by handing it over to a private consortium. 

The opening up also involved setting up a regulator, Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe). IN-SPACe would provide a one-stop shop for all space-related activities in India. ISRO would then concern itself with the research and development of various space technologies and applications.

IN-SPACe would “promote, hand hold, permit, monitor and supervise space activities by NGPEs and accord necessary permissions as per the regulatory provisions, exemptions and statutory guidelines”.

Developments since the Announcement

A draft Space Activities Bill, 2017 had been floated for comments from stakeholders and the public. This bill was to provide an overall legal framework for the space sector. As of February 2022, the bill has completed public and legal consultations and has been sent to the various Ministries for their approval.

IN-SPACe was established. Pawan Goenka, a former Managing Director of the Indian automobile major, Mahindra & Mahindra, was made Chairman of IN-SPACe. It was reported in February 2022 that ISRO facilities and expertise were extended to the NGPEs. ISRO facilities are being shared with these private entities at no or reasonable cost basis.

NSIL undertook its first fully commercial launch for Brazil’s Amazonia 1 and fourteen ride-share satellites in February 2021, on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle’s (PSLV) PSLV-C51 mission. It is also undertaking the first demand-driven communication satellite [PDF] launch. It will launch the GSAT-24 communications satellite to fulfill the demand of Direct-to-Home company, Tata Sky (now Tata Play). The launch is expected to take place on board the European Ariane V in the first half of this year.

The Department of Space had provided various draft policies on its website for comments. These include draft policies on Space Communications, Remote Sensing, Technology Transfer, Navigation, Space Transportation, Space exploration and Space Situational Awareness, and Human Spaceflight through 2020 and 2021. India, at present, has, only Space Communications and Remote Sensing policies. 

Although space startups have been present in India since 2011, there was a real acceleration in the number of startups that started following the opening up of the space sector. As per statistics shared by the Indian Government in February 2022, there are more than 50 space startups presently in India. These work in areas such as building satellites, launch vehicles, satellite subsystems like electric propulsion systems, as well as various space-based applications in remote sensing, agriculture, fisheries, economic growth forecasting, etc. The Indian Government hopes to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) in the space sector.

Obstacles in the Way

As with any reform, there is a feeling that the reforms are not being implemented fast enough. It is not known when the draft Space Activities bill would be cleared by the Union Government and tabled in Parliament. The Space Communications policy is expected to be finalized by April 2022. The status of the other policy drafts is currently not known.

In the interim, ISRO is tasked with clearing the backlog of remote sensing, communication, navigation, scientific, and interplanetary missions of national importance which have been delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. India has only had 5 launches from India since 2020. One of them was a failure. There are limits on the number of launches ISRO is able to do in a financial year (March to April). This period of transition would be a difficult one to manage at ISRO, as it would have to fulfill launches for NSIL as well. 

NSIL floated tenders for the commercialization of the PSLV in 2019. It has still not been announced as to who the tender is awarded to. There are two other operational launch vehicles, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV Mk-III) that also need to be similarly commercialized. 

All these delays then make the regulator, In-SPACe ineffective to do much other than provide access to DoS facilities until there is regulatory clarity with the publication of draft policies and the passage of the draft Space Activities Bill in Parliament.

Hopeful Future?

While it is expected that the infrastructure put in place after the announcement of the space reforms, would take anywhere from half a decade to a decade, the future remains hopeful. 

In the decade, India expects to launch interplanetary missions to the Moon, Mars, and Venus. It also expects to operationalize its human spaceflight program in the first half of this decade. In addition, it expects to launch missions for communications, remote sensing, navigation, and scientific applications.

It is expected that these reforms would bear fruit in the future decades. India hopes to participate and play a bigger role in the global space economy. It hopes that its start-ups today will provide goods and services not only for India but also for the world. 

Feedback on ThePrint opinion by Carnegie fellows

ThePrint published an opinion piece by Carnegie India’s Konark Bhandari and Tejas Bharadwaj on 7 November 2022. I am writing this piece to point out certain mistakes in the arguments that they make.

The Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, launched 36 satellites of OneWeb last week. OneWeb, a joint venture between the UK government and India’s Bharti Enterprises, had been scampering to secure a launch of its satellites after its original partner, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, backed out following the war in Ukraine. There seemed to be no backup available for OneWeb, with analysts citing SpaceX as the only possible option.

Roscosmos was the launch provider. Arianespace was the launch partner. OneWeb backed out on the back of unreasonable demands from Roscosmos. The link they provided in “backed out” in the link clarifies this.

This launch by ISRO, therefore, is seminal. It has defied market expectations. It has done the launch in record time.

The record-time launch defying market expectations was done by postponing the Chandrayaan 3 mission for which the launch vehicle was slated to be used. When SpaceX is able to do a launch a week, making such a claim makes no sense. SpaceX did not launch as fast as India did because it simply prioritized its missions better than India did.

It was also the first mission that did not use India’s traditional workhorse vehicle, the PSLV, but instead opted for the more sophisticated GSLV-Mk III. And it has further catapulted ISRO, and by extension India, as a promising and emerging player in the commercial launch market. To be sure, India did undertake commercial launches for other customers earlier as well, but the speed with which ISRO launched OneWeb’s satellites, and their overall significance, was truly a noteworthy milestone.

ISRO has traditionally flown commercial missions on the workhorse PSLV mission. This is the first time ISRO flew a commercial mission on the GSLV Mk-III. OneWeb’s 36 satellites weighed more than 5,000 kg. PSLV could not deliver that payload to the intended orbit. GSLVMk-III was the only Indian launch vehicle capable of doing the job.

ISRO was able to deliver the launch at this speed because it postponed the launch of Chandrayaan. This would have been “a noteworthy milestone” if ISRO had built a new GSLV Mk-III at this time and fulfilled the demand.

Given India’s increased capability and an enhanced appetite to undertake launches for overseas customers, is it possible to expand the scope of these activities? Could India not just launch small satellite constellations but also build them? Could it do this not just for private enterprises but also countries as well? India should use its capabilities in space infrastructure to undertake deft space diplomacy, with a focus on small satellites. This may fulfil a variety of objectives.

Because of the point above, there has been no increased capability. They are working on increasing the capacity.

Therefore, India can and should think about entering this domain that enables smaller and less “space-capable” states to build their defensive capabilities for peaceful purposes. While SpaceX currently provides access to its Starlink terminals only to its customers, and has cited “cost” as a factor in possibly pulling such access from Ukraine, India should consider providing an entire vertical stack to other countries, including capacity building related to imparting technical “know-how”. This could be done by building, launching and providing access to small satellites to nations that wish to utilise the benefits arising from such services. Besides using them for defence purposes, these benefits accrue in the domains of precision farming, disaster management, and climate change impact measurement.

There are significant obstacles that stop India from providing countries entire spacecraft stacks or even launch services. Many originate from US’s ITAR norms.

Logistically speaking, even for countries that may possess such satellite building capability, launching them in a timely and cost-effective manner is often a challenge. Many small satellites have to often operate as secondary payload on most rocket launches. The more thrust a rocket has, the more payload it can carry. Accordingly, since there are various payloads on a rocket, small satellites usually have to take a back seat and essentially “rideshare” with other payloads whose readiness determines the overall launch schedule. India, with its newly built SSLV, has demonstrated that it can address this logjam too. In fact, ISRO had developed the SSLV keeping in mind lighter payloads weighing less than 500 kg, which are usually used to provide Internet access in remote areas.

Small satellites fly as rideshare when launch vehicles have additional payload-carrying capacity after carrying a primary satellite. This is one of the ways that smaller satellites can launch faster rather than wait for a dedicated launch vehicle to launch them. Rideshare is one of the solutions to the problem that is described above.

Each satellite in a constellation of satellites that provide internet access in remote areas may weigh less than 500 kg. But, to provide continuous internet access, more than one of these sub-500 kg satellites is needed. SSLV would take a long time to launch satellite constellations. GSLV Mk-III is better suited for this role.

We are also waiting for the first successful flight of the SSLV. So, we are awaiting the demonstration of the launch vehicle that can address the logjam.

As luck would have it, India’s domestic policy matrix as well as the international regulatory scenario are currently aligned with these geopolitical aims. India’s freshly proposed telecommunication bill might just make it easier for satellite spectrum to be cheaper – which could help with the adoption of satellite terminals and then help drive use of satellite broadband. A larger satellite broadband user base may effectively drive down the cost per terminal and help ISRO, which itself entered the market for providing satellite broadband last month, to cross-subsidise other countries’ adoption of such satellites.

ISRO has not entered the market for providing satellite broadband. Two of ISRO satellites – the GSAT-11 and GSAT-29 – will be used by a consortium of Hughes Telecommunications India and Bharti Airtel to provide satellite internet services to enterprises (like Jio and SBI) in India and hopefully, also to remote parts of India like Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, and Himachal Pradesh.

In addition to this, with the new US FCC rules mandating deorbiting going into effect (and with FCC being the de-facto global space regulator), de-orbiting may become a more common phenomenon, thereby providing opportunities for Indian companies that specialise in deorbiting satellites which have completed their missions. Given the increasing frequency of small satellite launches and the need for their replacement/deorbiting every now and then, this is eminently feasible. At the same time, there is a valid fear that this may lead to congestion in outer space over time, but India is currently chairing the Working Group on UNCOPUOS LTS Guidelines that is promoting the implementation of existing guidelines as well as discussing the possibilities of developing new guidelines to address the sustainability issues of small satellites, including satellite constellations.

There may be Indian companies working on deorbiting satellites but there are none with such demonstrated capability. It can increase its order book size but I am not sure how much they can deliver until they demonstrate capability.

It would be interesting to see India’s response in the Working Group as the partly Indian-owned company OneWeb may be one of the affected parties of these rules.

However, challenges remain. India would need to ensure that the benefits provided by its small satellites are unique and not in conflict with any existing space programmes of partner/beneficiary nations. Furthermore, the gap between promise and performance must also be addressed since there is a perception that India’s other bilateral infrastructure projects have been afflicted by delays, whatever the cause may be. In the end, India has an opportunity to share the manifold benefits of its prowess in space with other countries. It must do so actively as a form of space diplomacy. Space has always been characterised as a part of the global commons. India can now validate this axiom to the advantage of the comity of nations. 

Space is presently an opportunity for collaboration and data-sharing. As a part of space diplomacy, it must share data from its small but aging fleet of remote-sensing satellites. It must provide the services it already does for disaster management and search and rescue operations.

ISRO must first work on the gap between promise and performance for its own fleet of satellites (remote-sensing, communications, and navigation) and missions like Chandrayaan 3.

My prescriptions

Space was characterized as a part of the global commons, but it is falling apart today. I think India must try to make sure that outer space becomes part of a global commons, parts of which (like the Moon and Mars) are opened up for competition and commercial exploitation after all countries are consulted through mechanisms like UN-COPUOS.

On the question asked in the sub-heading of the article, on whether India must now build small satellites and forge global partnerships? I do not know.

Replace satellites before they die

Image of Oceansat-2 from ISRO. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There was news recently that an issue with the attitude control system caused the end of life of the Megha-Tropiques mission. The satellite had completed more than ten years in orbit. This reminded me of a comment we had submitted to the Parliamentary Standing Committee.

One of the comments I had written as part of The Takshashila Institution’s comments to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests, and Climate Change addressed said:

The Department of Space must aim to put in orbit replacements for operational satellites before they reach end-of-mission life and not of end-of-design life.

pg 7, Comments to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change on Demand for Grants (DFGs) in the Union Budget for FY 2022-23

With reference to Megha-Tropiques, which had a mission life of three years, I meant that we seek to replace them before the end of three years and not the ten years it eventually served because its parts were designed to last this long.

Perhaps, replacing Megha-Tropiques was not top of mind at ISRO or CNES, the French space agency. But, consider a satellite that we plan to launch in the near future, Oceansat-3.

Oceansat-1 was launched in 1999 and had a mission life of 5 years. Oceansat-2, the replacement for Oceansat-1, was launched in September 2009, six months after 10 years of Oceansat-1’s launch anniversary. Oceansat-1 survived for 11 years.

Oceansat-2 had a mission life of 5 years. The scanning scatterometer (SCAT) on board the Oceansat-2 failed after 4.5 years. In 2016, India launched a satellite, SCATSat-1, to replace the functionality. Oceansat-2 has now been functional for 12.5 years. Oceansat-3 has been plagued with delays. The new launch date for Oceansat-3 is now August-September 2022.

The pandemic played a role in the delay. If Oceansat-2 had failed after 11 years like it’s predecessor, we would not have a Oceansat. What would that mean? The Wikipedia page says:

Oceansat satellites facilitate a range of applications including documenting chlorophyll concentration, phytoplankton blooms, atmospheric aerosols and particulate matter as well as marine weather forecast to predict cyclones.

Oceansat Wikipedia page

Forget if the others don’t make sense to you but imagine not being able to predict cyclones with accuracy. Remember the claims of being able to predict cyclones much earlier and hence being able to save more lives? What happens if that function goes kaput?

It was that functionality that was lost and was replaced by SCATSat-1 in 2016. That instrument has now been running for 5.5 years. It has crossed six months since end of it’s five year mission life. Maybe it will survive eleven years like other satellites in the series. Maybe not. Hence, replace satellites before they die.

Update on April 10 @ 2126 hrs IST: @zingaroo on Twitter had an update on SCATSat-1:

Many other things could also go wrong. This is why redundancy is good. But, there are constraints. There are budgetary and people constraints. I think that is why we must work towards replacing the satellite as close as possible to the end of mission life.

This is not the first time I am making this point. I had written an article for The Wire Science in 2019 where this was one of the issues that I had raised. In the article, I applauded ISRO because it was doing much better at replacing satellites of the CARTOSAT series compared to other remote sensing satellites just after mission life.

I thought of putting the suggestion again in the comments to the Parliamentary Committee because I thought the pandemic reinforced the lesson. In case of an unforeseen incident because of which we are not able to replace a satellite before mission life, we have some tolerance before if we launch it before end of design life. But, it we launch it close to end of design life, there is a possibility that there may be a loss of the satellite before we can launch the replacement.

A First Step to better Space Situational Awareness

It was three years after the Kargil war in 1998. It was more than a month after the deadly attacks of September 11. A Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) carrying a satellite with possible military applications was launched from India’s space port, Sriharikota.

Cover of the Jan-Mar 2003 edition of Space India. Source: ISRO.

The armed forces wanted a way to watch the border with Pakistan. The satellite launched on-board the PSLV-C3 mission had a capability to see vehicles on the ground (1 m resolution) and could hence help spot infiltration bids by military or terrorists from across the border from Pakistan.

This was the Technology Experiment Satellite (TES). The launch took place without much fanfare.

But, this mission had a more lasting impact than just this important near-term national security mission. Flying with TES, were the Belgian PROBA and the German BIRD satellites. The PSLV after placing TES and BIRD in circular orbits, moved using its yaw RCS thrusters to place PROBA in an elliptical orbit. Each of these customers paid India $1 million for the mission. This was a big deal then, being just the second commercial mission that India was flying.

PSLV-C3 sequence of satellite separation. Illustration in the Space India edition Oct-Dec 2001.

This demonstrated PSLV capability to place multiple satellites in multiple orbits. So, the primary satellite could be placed in one orbit while the ride-share satellites could fly to the same or other orbits.

Within a couple of months of the launch, the fourth stage of the satellite broke-up on 19 December, 2002. A paper written for the 34th Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) Scientific Assembly held in Houston, USA, by P Bandopadhyay, R Sharma and V Adimurthy identified the cause as explosion. They predicted that 75% of the debris would decay in the Earth’s atmosphere by end-2002.

In the Space Situational Assessment 2021 that ISRO released yesterday, they shared that 76 (almost 20%) of the 386 debris pieces from the PSLV-C3 fourth stage explosion still remain in orbit.

Although ISRO knew that passivation was important, this mission seems to have prompted active ISRO efforts towards passivation of upper stages of launch vehicles and spacecrafts of ISRO. This 2019 paper by Santosh Kosambe throws light on these efforts to reduce the contribution of space debris because of ISRO launches.

A K Ganeshan, then with the Flight Dynamics Center at ISRO Satellite Center (now, U R Rao Satellite Center) wrote a piece about space debris in the January to the March 2003 edition. This, seems to be one of the first public write-ups on the issue published by ISRO.

Ganeshan and Adimurthy (from the 2002 COSPAR paper above) wrote a paper together in Acta Astronautica in February 2006. This seems to be a seminal paper in the active efforts ISRO took in reducing space debris.

The Space Situational Assessment shares important information about Indian assets (spacecraft and Indian space debris) in orbit broadly. It shares the methods by which ISRO tracks these objects (optical telescopes and radar). It also shares the debris avoidance maneuvers it has performed to protect Indian space assets (satellites and even the Chandrayaan-II orbiter).

Sharing this important information publicly is an important first step. Transparently sharing this information with data (two-line elements) would be the logical next step.

ISRO has been building this capability with a series of optical telescopes and radars to be installed for monitoring. This would be the basic institutional infrastructure required since India is responsible, as per international law, for accidents in space caused due to Indian space assets (spacecraft and debris).

My former colleague at Takshashila, Aditya Pareek and I had written a piece in The Wire Science asking for more involvement from the open-source intelligence community. ISRO must encourage the growth of this talent in India. The sharing of the data with two-line elements will help the development and growth of an Indian community.

India has also begun the process of opening up the space sector for private companies. As private companies build spacecraft and launch vehicles, there would be an increase in the number of space assets to be monitored. While ISRO built infrastructure can monitor these, Indian companies should also become part of the solution. Companies like LeoLabs show how private companies can help solve this problem.

As the number of Indian assets in space grows, it will become increasingly important to work with other space-faring nations which may endanger Indian assets or vice-versa.

In short, we will need institutional capability, amateur enthusiasts, private companies and collaboration with other space-faring nations to keep Indian assets in space safe and to reduce Indian liability in case of any space accidents.

Interview with Dr. S Unnikrishnan Nair, Director, HSFC and VSSC in Malayalam

This is a Malaylam language interview on Asianet News with Dr. S Unnikrishnan Nair. He is the Director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (this is where Indian rockets and launch vehicles are built) and Human Spaceflight Center (this is where India’s human spaceflight programme is being developed with astronaut training etc.).

Link to the Malayalam article that accompanies this interview.

The interviewer is Arun Raj K M. You can follow him here on Twitter. Below was his announcement for the interview posted on Twitter. He erroneously says 2020 in the tweet but he means 2022.

I do not have a cable connection at home, so I watched it on YouTube. The video was originally shared on Gareeb Scientist’s Discord (link to his YouTube channel, his Discord is for members only). At least two people on Twitter asked me for the English translation of this interview. Hence, I decided to create the English notes of the interview to help me share it with others.

There may be mistakes in my notes. Please refer to the original in Malayalam if you understand the language. Please help me with corrections in the comments section of this blog post.

  • Congratulations on the PSLV-C52 launch.
  • ISRO thinking about how to clear backlog and return to launch after COVID-19.
  • Next launch will be PSLV C-53.
    • within 2-3 months.
    • exact date will be known later.
  • Small Satellite Launch Vehicle
    • designed to launch 500 kg payload to Low Earth Orbit.
    • Has a lot of commercial possibilities.
    • Three solid stage with a liquid velocity trimming module for fourth stage.
    • All important tests are done. Vehicle being integrated right now.
    • Launch from Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota.
  • Gaganyaan – India’s human space flight programme
    • Working on how Orbital module can be separated in flight.
    • It is not necessary to use GSLV Mk-III for these tests.
    • So, a Test Vehicle (TV) was developed using a single stage Vikas engine. This engine is derived from second stage of the PSLV (PS-2) and the liquid strap-ons used on the GSLV (L-40).
    • This vehicle will be used to create the conditions of flight to test the abort of the Orbital Module.
    • 1-2 flights of the Orbital Module will be undertaken this year. This gives us confidence to make sure that the Crew can escape in case of any issues in-flight.
    • TV is also being developed as a multi-purpose test platform.
    • TV will be used to test air-breathing propulsion system.
    • TV will also be used to create flight conditions for the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV-TD) for various tests like straight-line flights of the RLV.
  • Human Spaceflight Launch Vehicle
    • GSLV Mk III is converted into a human-rated launch vehicle.
    • Satellite and payload fairing used on GSLV Mk III is replaced with an Orbital Module and Crew Escape System.
    • Vehicle design has changed. Hence, vehicle undergoing tests like wind tunnel tests etc. Many of the hardware used for the vehicle is being realized at Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (India’s rocketry hub).
    • Each stage needs to be analyzed separately and together to identify points at which failure is possible. Then, need to provide redundancy to avoid failure.
    • Health parameters of the launch vehicle needs to be monitored constantly. If needed, flight should be aborted under appropriate conditions. Vehicle Health Monitoring System is being developed for this purpose.
  • Second Launch Pad
    • Second Launch pad is being modified to support human spaceflight.
    • Second Launch Pad will be able to launch both GSLV Mk III and human-rated GSLV Mk III.
    • Escape chutes are being developed on the Pad.
    • Testing facilities and other accessories needed for human spaceflight being added to Second Launch Pad.
  • Astronaut Training
    • 4 astronauts in Bengaluru at Human Space Flight Center.
    • Training provided in Russia was generic in nature.
    • The Indian training round involves familiarizing astronauts with the human rated launch vehicle and the Orbital Module.
    • It also involves theory, practical, mental fitness, physical fitness etc.
    • Training likely to take 1.5 years. (I am assuming this is the Indian training round and not the total training time.)
    • Understand which areas are accessible in the Orbital Module.
    • Astronauts will also undergo simulator training. Simulators are getting ready at a temporary facility being developed in Bengaluru. This will be inaugurated soon.
  • Collaborating with Glavkosmos, other collaborations? (This was the question asked, but Unnikrishnan replied about Indian contribution. I think the interviewer intended to ask about any other foreign collaboration.)
    • This is a truly national programme.
    • We are tying up with industries, academia and other national laboratories where the technology is already available.
      • DRDO lab in Agra provided us with the parachutes.
      • Defence Food Research Laboratory in Mysore is providing the astronauts with food.
      • We have signed 12 MoUs with various national laboratories.
  • Technology Transfer to the public in the future. (Again, I think the interviewer asked about generally but Unnikrishnan is answering from PoV of human spaceflight).
    • Life support system in capsule could help in living in high altitudes. (possibly, in locations like Siachen for the Indian Army)
    • Inflatable Habitat
    • Portable Life Support System
    • Flight Suits
    • There are also many other things that we cannot foresee today.
  • Private Ecosystem
    • Space was a largely the domain of the government in the 1950s and 1960s. Private companies are playing a bigger role in space across the world.
    • Especially in America, where today they are also involved in human spaceflight and dreams of travelling to Mars.
    • We need to increase private sector participation in the Indian space programme.
    • Mechanisms like IN-SPACe (India’s regulator for the space sector) help.
    • Incubators, access to ISRO faciliteis will help.
  • Do you see private companies like Skyroot etc. as competitors?
    • No.
    • We have to encourage private ecosystem in the space sector to lower cost, to foster technological innovations etc.
    • We need to handhold them today to help them achieve these tomorrow.
    • We help them in reviews, provide test facilities, identify research areas etc.
    • By doing this, we want to increase India’s share in the space economy.
    • ISRO will do science missions.
  • Chandrayaan-3 , India’s third lunar mission
    • It will happen this year.
    • VSSC’s responsibility is for the launch vehicle, the GSLV Mk III.
    • We will make sure that VSSC delivers the same on time.
  • Heavy-Lift Launch Vehicle
    • Studies on this are on-going. They are not yet in project stage.
    • These are revealed to the public when a proposal is sent to the Government after study.
    • This will be based on capabilities of ISRO, Indian industrial capability etc.
  • GSLV (what was earlier called the GSLV Mk II)
    • The cause of the failure of the GSLV-F10 has been isolated.
    • We are working on fixing this issue. Fix implementation is in progress.
    • NAVIC’s Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS-1J) will be launched on the GSLV after the fixing the issue.
  • NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR)
    • Joint collaboration between ISRO and NASA. Work in progress.
    • Main responsibility of VSSC is the GSLV. Work in progress to make sure that the launch vehicle is ready to launch on time.
  • Satish Dhawan Space Center, Sriharikota (India’s space port)
    • We are developing the capability to launch multiple rockets and launch vehicle. These are in the final stages of implementation.
    • We are also building the capability to increase the number of PSLV launches. These are also in the final stages of development.
    • We are building the capability to assemble and integrate GSLV Mk III in two locations, brought to the launch pad and launched.
  • Science Missions
    • Aditya-L1 (Mission to study the Sun) – to be launched in the second half of this year.
    • Launch vehicle preparations are in progress in VSSC.
  • The change in naming conventions (from OceanSat, EduSAT to EOS and CMS etc.) is for better monitoring of the missions.
  • Semi-cryogenic engine
    • These are being built to uprate the capability of the GSLV Mk III (to help it carry more mass to orbit).
    • LPSC, Mahendragiri is working on developing this stage and associated testing facilities.
  • Vyom-mitra (a humanoid robot developed by ISRO)
    • It will fly on the first uncrewed mission of Gaganyaan.
    • It is now undergoing testing and qualification for space conditions for launch.
    • Robotics is an important area. We see these robots as co-travelers with humans to the Moon and Mars (for interplanetary missions).
    • Hence, we are testing and developing our capability in robotics.

Evo-Devo Universe

I had written about the Evo-Devo universe on January 3, 2021. I got many questions from readers for more details about the Evo-Devo universe. I am still in the process of learning more about it myself.

Photo by Snapwire on

Evo-Devo is a model of predicting the future of the universe. The model was developed by futurist John Smart and philosopher, Clement Vidal. It is a possible theoretical explanation for the Universe. The authors propose a model that mixes two other existing models – evolutionary and developmental model.

However, scientists, presently think that the universe is fully evolutionary.

Evolutionary in the Evo-Devo is the bottom-up process of evolution. This is what we see in biology and shown by Charles Darwin. The authors call this part of the process “chaotic, variety-producing, locally adaptive, and unpredictable”.

Developmental in the Evo-Devo is the top-down process of development by planning. The authors call this part of the process “stabilizing, convergently unifying, globally adaptive and predictable”.

The authors think that the mixture is in the Pareto ratio (80:20). This ratio could be 90:10, 95:5, 98:2 or could move in either direction as more data becomes available.

In his essay, The Goodness of the Universe, John Smart applies the above theory to show that the Universe becomes increasingly good as it evolves and develops into networks. As these networks miniaturize and becomes dense, it becomes more likely that humans will stay on Earth than go out into the cosmos.