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.

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 Some of the information mentioned here is outdated.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. 

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.

What they talk about when they talk about the GSLV?

The GSLV-F10/EOS-03 mission failed on August 12, 2021. The vehicle faced an issue in it’s third cryogenic stage.

What does ISRO mean when they say GSLV? There is a lot of confusion between the GSLV Mk I and the GSLV Mk II. The YouTuber Gareeb Scientist raised this question in a video he posted on August 8, 2021. He provides the reasons for this confusion.

I believed the first version of the story shared in Gareeb Scientist’s video. I believed that the Mk I was a reference to the GSLVs which flew with the Russian cryogenic engine, KVD-1. And, thought that the Mk II referred to the GSLV which flew with the Indian cryogenic engine, CE-7.5.

This version was shared by ISRO in the brochure of the GSLV-D3 which flew on April 15, 2010. ISRO has removed this brochure from it’s website. But, there is an archived version online as well as on the VSSC website [PDF]. Page two of this brochure carries this explanation.

The Wikipedia page for GSLV still references this explanation and describes variants in this manner. I think that this has contributed to this confusion.

ISRO seems to have changed this version of the story in 2015 in an e-book published on its website, Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet. You need an epub reader to read the book. In an essay by R V Perumal titled, Evolution of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, he mentions that the GSLV Mk I was actually a modified version of the PSLV with a cryogenic upper stage. However, since the Cryogenic Stage did not work out for the PSLV, hence the idea of the GSLV Mk I was dropped. Perumal was the Project Director for the PSLV and GSLV and later the Director, Liquid Propulsion Systems Center (LPSC). I think I would trust this version.

Since there is no Mk I and all the flights of the GSLV are what ISRO called the Mk II project, it seems ISRO just dropped the Mk II and began calling the launch vehicle GSLV in 2017. This change is also seen on the ISRO website on the GSLV page from 2017.

The GSLV Mk III is a totally different project. I think the GSLV tag got attached to it only because it primarily delivers its payload to a geostationary transfer orbit.

Addendum – August 17, 2021

In response to this blog post @zingaroo replied on Twitter stating that ISRO had always called the GSLVs with the Russian cryogenic engines as the Mk-I and the ones with the Indian cryogenic engines as the Mk-II. He provided two examples of the same from the past.

He presents evidence from the magazine, SPACE-India April-June 2003, Page 11. Also from Gopal Raj’s book Reach for the Stars published in 2000.

It seems ISRO is also re-writing history in a way. It seems that the project started somewhere after 2010.

Does ISRO have any plans?

India’s space programme seems to be stuck in a rut.

India has three broad tracks in it’s space programme – satellites and launch vehicles programme for remote sensing, communications and navigation, planetary exploration and human spaceflight. We are trying to outsource the first to a private industry that is not prepared to handle the responsibility yet. The second is moving in slow motion. The third seems to be pushing really hard to achieve the unachievable. In the recently held, Global Space Exploration Conference 2021, Chairman, ISRO had this to say:

This is a statement that the media in India has run several times. Hence, his statement did not get any media coverage in India. ISRO is going through tough times with the spaceport under lockdown because of the large number of COVID-19 cases.

The United Arab Emirates seems to be having more ambitious planetary exploration plans than India at the moment. They are talking about two lunar missions, they have signed up for the Artemis accords and are planning to send the second astronaut to the ISS soon.

UAE has grown rich on an important natural resource, oil. This resource is limited on Earth. This has helped the nation learn important lessons in importance of natural resources for the development of the country. Hence, they want to be part of the space faring nations who get to decide how space resources are used just like OPEC controls crude oil prices on Earth.

India used to announce plans like this before. Before the Chandrayaan 1 launch, we spoke of landing humans on the Moon by 2020. While factors beyond ISRO’s control delayed the realization of these projects by years, it gave everyone a broad idea of where India was headed. Now, there is just silence in this regard.

Chairman, ISRO in his New Year message had said that the various centers had drawn up decadal plans but so far we have not seen any. When there is no action physically due to valid reasons, this is the right time to think of things. For example, China has been putting out studies about how to get humans to Mars. ISRO has been doing these studies but not publishing them.

The civilian space programme is not secretive. The idea is to use this programme to raise the morale of the workforce, inject excitement for science and commerce in the country and project India’s rising capability in the sector. This communication is an important task that is assigned to Chairman, ISRO.

A Difficult Task – Splitting ISRO and NSIL

me: I made an error in understanding this. I leave this here for record. But, I have corrected this on my newsletter.

I write a weekly newsletter on an Indian perspective to space stuff every Thursday. The edition that I sent out last Thursday (March 11) was a space policy edition.

I specifically covered a report tabled in the Rajya Sabha by the Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment, Forests & Climate Change.

Department of Space Organisation Chart. Image: ISRO.

The Standing Committee asked DoS about the role of India’s space agency, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) with the entrance of NewSpace India Ltd. (NSIL). The Department replied stating that missions such as Gaganyaan, Chandrayaan and advanced technology mission would be carried on by ISRO and the rest would go to NSIL. This answer was presented to Parliament in February 2021. The Standing Committee published the report on 8 March 2021.

It is based on this answer that I said in the newsletter that:

This means that ISRO is going through a period of change as it commercializes parts of it’s operations (PSLV, GSLV, SSLV etc.) and focuses on research. This section thus marks a very important turning point in it’s journey. As shared in this PTI story, NSIL also has ambitions of building satellites and payloads. This would mean parts of works done in each center of ISRO will be commercialized and spun-off into NSIL.

Pradeep’s Space Newsletter #20

On 12 March 2021, NSIL held a press conference (NSIL press note). Here, they announced that they are planning to take over ISRO’s fleet of communications and remote sensing satellites.

I must admit I did not see the satellites bit coming. This is no small task. Managing such a fleet of satellites would need the kind of human resources and expertise that is currently only available at ISRO.

Splitting technical and human resources between ISRO and NSIL will be no small task. This is the turning point that I am referring to in the paragraph above.

DoS had put out a request for proposals (RFPs) from the industry to see if any single or a consortium of industries could develop PSLV for NSIL. This process, they claimed during the press conference will take 6 to 8 months.

This leaves the space sector with several players with them not yet knowing what they have to do. There is Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), NewSpace India Ltd. (NSIL), Antrix Corporation, Space Commission and the Department of Space. The Government will have the task of putting them in order to make the sector boom. A difficult task.

ISRO’s plan for the next decade

Chairman, ISRO and Secretary, Department of Space, K Sivan, shared a new year message.

It has been a little more than 5 years since ISRO shared it’s Space Vision documents, it usually shares. I think this had something to do with the failure of the GSLVs in the first half of the last decade. With both, GSLV Mk-II and GSLV Mk-III operationalized, I was hoping that ISRO would start the process of planning it’s space missions again. ISRO’s former Chairman, G Madhavan Nair recently criticised ISRO for this shortcoming. Thus, I was happy to read that an institutional level decadal plan has been drawn up and inputs were received from most ISRO centers.

I particularly like the use of the word ‘resourcefulness’. This has been used to describe ISRO in the past and I think Sivan might have re-discovered the word. I prefer this word to describe ISRO’s innovative use of limited resources. I prefer this word instead of the low-cost and jugaad descriptors that media has been using for ISRO since the Mars Orbiter Mission.

Space Transportation Systems

The Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (VSSC) at Thiruvananthapuram is ISRO’s principal space transportation systems center. VSSC has rightly identified heavy lift as an important challenge for India. If India is to plan even slightly more complex lunar missions or even useful Mars mission, it requires more power than what it currently has. The development of a heavy lift vehicle is an important step in building up capability in this aspect. With ISRO’s thrust in this decadal plan being towards human spaceflight, this will be an important requirement for launching space stations in the future.

Another aspect that VSSC has to focus on is the number of launches it’s launch vehicles can offer. ISRO has set targets of 10 launches per year in the past, a target it has not yet achieved. Being able to reach that target in this decade would be a fundamental confidence booster. With talk of commercialisation of the PSLV stages, there will be hope that the constraint will not rise from the supply side.

Also, VSSC will have to deliver on important technologies like the scramjet, testing of the reusable launch vehicle and partial reusability made popular now by SpaceX.

STS needs support from the other centers as well. The Liquid Propulsion Systems Center (LPSC) in Mahendragiri will play a vital role in development of the semi-cryogenic engine required for the Heavy Launch Vehicle. There will be no use developing these systems without the support of the Satish Dhawan Space Center (SDSC) at Shriharikota. SDSC will need to ramp up its infrastructure for a more busy schedule. Adding to it’s manifest this decade will be private launch vehicles other than the one’s from ISRO. Skyroot’s Vikram 1 could be the first privately launched launch vehicle from SDSC as early as December 2021. Also, not to forget, this decade could see Indians launching on an Indian rocket from Indian soil.


The U R Rao Satellite Center (URSC) in Bengaluru will also have to increase the production of satellites. India currently has one-fourth the number of operational payload of China. Earlier, it’s complaint has been that the satellites it built don’t get to orbit. With those problems sorted and with more options opening up to go into orbit, URSC has the opportunity to build satellite constellations, build innovative space infrastructure like space stations, in-space satellite servicing and maybe even satellites that dock with each other. Besides, new innovations, URSC also has to build and launch satellites that are needed for various applications like remote sensing, meteorology, communications, navigation and geographic information systems.

Space Applications

As a country, I think we have not integrated space enough into various parts of the Indian economy. Many of the NewSpace companies are now offering this service directly to customers. Space Applications Center (SAC), Ahmedabad and National Remote Sensing Center (NRSC), Hyderabad must now also be centers where data is exchanged with private players and not only government players. This has to be provided with minimal down time and with high accuracy. Besides building technologies that enable this in space and on Earth, they have a vital role to play to support requirements of the Indian government and NewSpace applications providers.

Space Situational Awareness

ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Center (ISTRAC), in Bengaluru has an important role to play in space situational awareness. As we launch more satellites into orbit including those by private companies, space situational awareness becomes more important. There is a real threat from our neighbours who have direct kinetic weapons, co-situated orbital weapons and cyber weapons in their kits. The recent operationalisation of the Space Situational Awareness center is a step in the right direction. Transparency in sharing data and collection of data by the center will improve its capability and hence prove to be an active player in the world in the matter of space situational awareness.

Science vs Engineering

While IIST provides the engineers who work at ISRO, an important complaint with ISRO has been the lack of science impact on it’s missions. I hope that in this decade, the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) at Ahmedabad works closely with other scientific institutions in the country to get more science per kilogram of payload available on ISRO’s satellites and outer space missions. The role of a scientist needs to shift from few to all stages of the mission. The engineers need to understand what the scientists want the satellite to do. The scientists need to understand the limitations of engineering payloads. I think PRL can facilitate this much better than any scientific institution in the country.

IIST will continue to provide ISRO with the engineers it needs but PRL needs to be made ready to provide the scientists who will provide challenges to engineers for unique space missions.

Last words…

ISRO needs to formalize the plans laid down by the Chairman. I think having plans will help ISRO plan and execute better. It will place more stress on time-bound completion of projects. It will make the organization ready for the challenges awaiting it while we compete not only with other nations but large private players. The Chairman talks about a transition to the knowledge economy but I think, in space we have moved from a knowledge economy to an utilization economy.

A utilization economy is one where space know-how is used for utilization of space-enabled data in the economy of Earth, utilization of space-based resources and possibly one day an economy that spans Earth-Moon and Mars as dreamed by our former President, A P J Abdul Kalam.

Following The PSLV C-50 mission on Twitter

After a long time, I live-tweeted the launch of the PSLV-C50 mission.

From my newsletter, edition #8

CMS-01 was earlier called GSAT-12R. The change of names is for ISRO’s new naming convention. It has named it’s remote sensing satellites as EOS for Earth Observation Satellite and it’s geostationary satellites as CMS for Communications and Meteorology Satellites. ISRO has provided no rationale for the renaming of satellites.

PSLV-C50 mission consisted of a PSLV flown in it’s XL configuration. XL stands for Extended Length. It’s 6 strap-on boosters are extended in length. It carries 4 ground-lit boosters and 2 air-lit boosters. CMS-01 was the only payload on board. The PSLV placed the satellite in the intended orbit in 1200 seconds. The intended orbit was orbit is 284 km X 20650 km at 17.86 deg inclination.

This is ISRO’s second launch from Indian soil in 2020 and third launch including one from Kourou on board the Ariane V launch vehicle.

In the post-launch press conference, ISRO’s Chairman, K Sivan announced that PSLV-C51, ISRO’s next launch would carry Anand satellite of Pixxel Space. This would be India’s first private satellite launch. Pixxel Space is a remote sensing satellite builder and data provider.

Astrobiology in India

I stayed in Lonar between July 2018 and June 2019. I was aware of the geological interest that the meteorite crater there held for the scientific community. I did not know what interest it held for the astrobiology community. I had the first opportunity to learn more when Jyotirvidya Parisanstha (JVP) hosted a lecture by Prof. Yogesh Shouche of the National Center for Cell Science. The lecture was about how Lonar Lake was a model for extraterrestrial life search! I kicked myself little for missing the lecture. Today’s podcast episode gave me a glimpse of what I probably missed.

Episode 16 of the NewSpace India podcast has Narayan Prasad (NP) in conversation with Siddharth Pandey, PhD. Siddharth heads the Center of Excellence in Astrobiology at Amity University, Mumbai. Below are the show notes from that episode.

Siddharth defines Astrobiology as the study of origin, evolution and distribution of life on Earth and the search for it elsewhere. He says Astrobiology formed the basis for some of the older space programs like NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos because it pertains to some of the fundamental questions that have been important to the human species like are we alone in the Universe and the search for life outside our planet. Siddharth wants to begin connecting to a network of people in India who are interested in Astrobiology. He returned to India after stints in America, Europe and Australia.

Siddharth says that astrobiology related experiments in India began in 2005 with teams led by Dr. Jayant Narlikar based out of IUCAA, Pune and TIFR, Hyderabad among others. This group believed in a theory called Panspermia – which says that life was bought to Earth by an asteroid impact at some point in the Earth’s history. This team conducted balloon experiments out of the field in Hyderabad that led to the discovery of bacteria living in extreme environments in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Siddharth says that the Methane search instrument (Methane Sensor for Mars – MSM) on board the Mars Orbiter Mission is an astrobiology experiment. He says ISRO had developed an astrobiology experiment knowingly or unknowingly. Methane is considered one of the bio-signatures that indicates the existence of life. Hence, existence of Methane corresponds to existence of life. He hopes we have more experiments flying to search for life in clouds of Venus and the surface of Mars. He hopes that the chance to carry micro-gravity experiments on board the 4th stage of the PSLV, SSLV and the upcoming human spaceflight mission, Gaganyaan increases the number of astrobiology experiment that can be designed and carried on these missions.

NP asks Siddharth if the lack of a Space Science roadmap is worrying. Siddharth says that he finds the fact that we have no clear Space Science roadmap concerning especially given ISRO’s plans for missions to Mars and Venus in the near future. He says that several meetings on these experiments have been held but the outcomes of these experiments need to be more widely shared. He hopes that in the future, scientists are involved right mission planning and architecture stage of the mission itself to design better payloads.

Siddharth says that there is a need for a National Committee for Astrobiology that brings together various Government departments like DST, DBT etc to develop a roadmap for Astrobiology and to co-ordinate an astrobiology program. He says that ISRO has been good at developing platforms for astrobiology experiments in space.

He then talks about analog environments that are present in India. He speaks about Ladakh, Kutch, Lonar in Maharashtra and Antarctica. He says that the low atmospheric pressure, low oxygen, high ultraviolet ray exposed environment which are well preserved for centuries in Ladakh provides conditions that are analogous to an early Mars.

He says that hypersaline bacteria and jarosite minerals found in Kutch have been studied by PRL, Ahmedabad and papers have been published in scientific journals. He says that being one of the largest continuous salt expanses make it an interesting field of study for it’s similarities to early Mars.

He says that the impact of a meteorite in basaltic rock, a form of rock formed by melting of volcanic rocks means that it takes longer to weather compared to meteorite impact on other types of rocks.. The site at Lonar, Mahrashtra is one that is most accessible among two other similar sites in the world. He says that Lonar also has a lake formed by a drain of a spring that drains into the crater. This is similar to the landing site for the Mars 2020 which may be going into a dried site where a lake such as the one in Lonar probably existed at some point in Mars’ history. Lonar offers similar basin and depositing mechanisms which scientists can compare and study from.

Siddharth says India has two sites in Antarctica – Maitri and Bharati. Of these, Bharti station is located on Larsemann Hills. The hill is of interest because it is ice-free. This is because geothermal heat prevents ice formation. This means scientists have access to rocks and access to study bacteria living in rocks which survive in dry and cold regions of Earth. It also has a permafrost where the ice has not melted as it is under the soil. Here the ice is preserved for centuries and hence of interest to scientists.

NP then asked about how a person interested in astrobiology can pursue it as a career option. Siddharth says that they are in the process of putting together a website with freely available reading material. Siddharth suggests that interested students can pursue Astrobiology at the post-graduate level after pursuing an under-graduate program in Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Engineering etc.

NP then asks Siddharth about possible citizen science efforts that can be undertaken in astrobiology. Siddharth talks about the development of a Space Citizen Network where citizens can get connected to research groups working in the field. He also suggests that citizens could connect with these groups when they go on field trips. There are plans for a field trip to Kutch in October 2020 and to Lonar in November 2020.

There are also plans for projects that can be undertaken at home. One of the plans is to distribute marbles and citizens can report back after studying microbial colonies that grow under the marble. Scientists are interested in understanding how microbial colonies grow and attach themselves to rocks. They also want to learn what environments support growth of these microbial colonies. This can be in addition to similar amateur astronomy projects like identifying asteroids etc.

NP then asks whether there are plans for an independent road-map for Astrobiology of Government efforts for the same. Siddharth says that plans are afoot to formalize a Society of AstroBiology Education and Research (SABER) that could be registered in Maharashtra. He says that the group had already met twice – once in Lucknow and once in Pune. They hope to develop a roadmap for the future growth of the astrobiology community. They might also consider contributing to mission objectives on future missions to Mars and Venus.

NP asks about raising funding for astrobiology experiments. Siddharth says that there is no single source for funding for astrobiology. Mostly, scientists raise funds from different departments and societies based on either where they are coming from or from organizations that are involved in their area of interest.

ISRO provides funding through its RESPOND and SNAP. He says that they have previously raised funding from companies like Tata Motors and National Geographic Traveller magazine. He is currently also thinking of reaching out to philanthropy houses in Mumbai to access funding for the future projects that they are thinking of undertaking.

Siddharth says that Amity is planning to put together a weekend program called Space for Everyone which would generate awareness about space. At the end the people who complete the program can join the Space Citizen Network. He says that astrobiology popularization has been hurt as there is a lack of credible speakers. He hopes that efforts above address these issues. Amity has also launched India’s plant growth space flight experiment called the Amity Space Biology Experiment -1 (ASBE-1).

On the role of the Media, he says that media should do more than simply cover events. They must provide a forum to discuss, analyze and critique events. He says that it must enable two way discussion between the scientist and the citizens. He says that India must look at reasons for which it is pursuing a scientific program.

NP says India has a strong Biotechnology and Pharmacy industry. He asks Siddharth about what is the scope for Indian biotech and pharmaceutical companies in participating in Astrobiology. Siddharth responds that astrobiology experiments would give these companies an opportunity to research how the human body behaves in microgravity and experiment with chemicals and drugs. He says that while there are applications in fundamental research, it would largely serve marketing purposes currently. Companies could showcase how their products are used in space programs and how their designs can be used in extreme conditions such as in space.

NP then asked where Siddharth sees the future of astrobiology in India. Siddharth replies that he hopes that ISRO works on larger support and infrastructural missions with private sector works on supporting low earth commercial missions. For astrobiology in India, he hopes that there is an active scientific society, meeting often to exchange knowledge and builds cross-domain and inter-disciplinary expertise that is needed. He also hopes India undertakes future missions to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn – Europa and Enceladus, that are considered some of the other sites in our solar system which could support life.

End of show notes.

This podcast also gave me a stream of ideas. We could Astrobiology Cafes to discuss recent developments in the field. As missions progress in this direction, I also think there will be discussions surrounding ethics and safety that arise. I do not see how these are tackled by the astrobiology community. This conversation excited me a lot, opened my eyes to what astrobiology really is about and agree with NP’s comment in the end that it was a dense knowledge transfer rich episode of the podcast. This reminded me so much of my days from 2009 when I developed a Lunar Analog Research Station.

Reporting ISRO

The 15th episode of NewSpace India podcast came out this Friday (January 17). It had Narayan Prasad in conversation with Vasudevan Mukunth. VM is the Science Editor for The Wire. If you do follow their Science stories, it is in quite a league of it’s own (better than most Indian coverage and almost at international standards). He also blogs extensively at Root Privileges and tweets at @1amnerd. Full disclosure that he has been my editor of the two pieces that I have contributed to The Wire.

Here are my notes from listening to the podcast episode for my own future reference:

The coverage of ISRO as a journalist depends on the quality of information and access to sources available to a journalist. It requires more information made available in the public domain and access to sources who can explain the information to a journalist. There is no clear demarcation on when the information is publicly available. In many cases, ISRO uses policy to clamp up when asked tough questions.

NP suggests this might be a top level policy level decision. VM suggests that the policy is that scientists are allowed to speak to journalists as long as their comments are not adversarial. Scientists often err on the side of caution and hence do not speak at all. There is no clear information policy. This ambiguity in information policy means that when a failure occurs, information flow just dries up.

NP describes The Wire’s science journalism with respect to ISRO as being that of piecing together information, for placing things in context and critiquing various aspects of the space program. He suggests that the lack of information has forced The Wire to take to this form of “citizen journalism”. VM replies saying that ISRO clamps up information and they seem to fail to acknowledge other sources of information for the stories. As an example, they fail to acknowledge that NASA could find the Vikram lander and put this news out. Similarly, international experts challenged the DRDO claim of the impact of the ASAT test. ISRO scientist don’t put out such news because they don’t know whether they can say it. Information comes out in the form of tweets, in form of access to ISRO Chairman’s office, some of the press notes or updates on the ISRO website etc.

NP then asked VM to share the toolkit that he uses to cover ISRO given this lack of information. VM replies that he uses Google, CelesTrak (where he’s playing with orbital visualisations), he uses crawlers that frequently crawl on the ISRO website where information is put out but not easily available/visible like PDFs etc, Twitter, WhatsApp and the ISRO sub-reddit. VM shares The Wire story that he did on the ISRO sub-redditors and other sources of ISRO news.

VM and NP think that clamping up when failure strikes is a cultural issue that ISRO needs to tackle. VM sympathises with ISRO with regards to the loss of signal issue during the Vikram landing as they may not be comfortable doing this. He feels that they would have done much better to keep quiet rather than to make absurd claims like 95% mission success etc. This is because of the lack of training of journalists they would report anything that ISRO says without questioning.

At another earlier point in the conversation, VM and NP had discussed that lack of good questions came from lack of well-trained journalists who follow space. VM had then argued that there was no point having good journalists when there was not enough people to answer said good questions. Existing journalists have also been made to bureaucratic hoops to cover ISRO events.

ISRO has also lost many opportunities for public science participation. Finding Vikram and Moon Impact Probe were good use cases. Images could easily have been released of the landing site and help taken from the public to find the lander. Also, NP points out that ISRO had a lot of support from the public in many fora, despite a failure and this makes ISRO statements like the 95% success rate unnecessary.

NP then asks on the possibility of using tools like the RTI. VM says RTI provisions are getting diluted and it is getting more difficult to get information through RTI in other areas. However, an RTI request could easily be blocked citing National Security reasons. So, VM wonders if it is worth the investment of time to apply a RTI query. He also says that information regarding a program under taken by ISRO should be put out voluntarily. VM says that commercial use of ISRO images and spacecrafts like the PSLV launch of Mars Orbiter Mission for the movie, Mangalyaan should have been made available easily for commercial use.

NP suggests that given ISRO’s lack of response, one of the ways in which good questions can be put to ISRO may be through the Parliamentary Standing Committee. He suggests it as one of the ways for getting information from ISRO. VM reiterates his stand that information should be forthcoming voluntarily from ISRO.

They both agree that the issue with answering questioning and putting out information is a cultural issue with ISRO.

NP then asks if there must be independent thinking and tracking of the space program, similar to efforts of T S Kelso and Jonathan McDowell. VM thinks that the lack of information availability makes this sort of analysis difficult in the Indian context.

NP then asks VM about what we can look forward to in the future from The Wire Science. VM says they are looking to add more videos and educational material. He believes that having a more informed audience improves the type of journalism that they can do.

They discuss how more senior and retired ISRO journalists could contribute more in the education and discourse if they wrote after their times at ISRO. VM thinks this is also not part of their culture. The books coming out currently are anecdotal or technical. U R Rao’s book is quoted as an exemption and an example to follow. ISRO scientists like Tapan Misra take to Facebook to write about current events at ISRO.

VM ends by saying that he is happy that more diverse newsrooms are now covering space. He gives Firspost as an example for this, whereas earlier the Hindu science pages was the go-to for this sort of information.

VM has posted an addendum to this conversation on his blog and Ohsin also shares his feedback on the ISRO sub-reddit along with his lament about how ISRO image policy leads to loss of images used for coverage of ISRO on Wikipedia. The about community for ISRO’s sub-reddit page perhaps encapsulates the whole episode: For anything related to Indian Space Agency we love but hardly know.