Tuesday, 16 December 2014

While GSLV Mark III is a milestone, India is still far away from dominating space

At 8.30 am on Wednesday (December 17, 2014), the countdown begins at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota for yet another ambitious launch by the country’s premier space agency. Exactly 24.30 hours later, ISRO would have conducted the experimental launch of its most powerful launch vehicle GSLV-Mark III which would carry a crew module as payload and, if all goes well, successfully return off the coast of Port Blair twenty minutes later. The cost of this experiment alone is around Rs. 155 crore while the total cost of the GSLV Mark III project is pegged at around Rs. 2900 crore.

Can a developing country like India afford such expensive outer space adventures? Dr. MYS Prasad, director of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, who has worked on all the launch vehicles produced by ISRO from SLV-3 to the latest GSLV Mark III, says that it is the need of the hour and that India is still way behind the needs of the country and its billion plus population.

“On December 7, our communication satellite GSAT-16 with 48 transponders weighing 3.2 tonnes was launched off the coast of French Guyana by European Space Agency. Along with our satellite, a 6.3 tonne DIRECTV -14 satellite was also put in the orbit by United States making the total payload weigh 10 around tonnes.. In comparison, at present we have launch vehicles that carry only 2.2 tonne satellites and GSLV Mark III, when it is fully ready in two years, will give us a capacity to carry a satellite weighing four tonnes,” he said.

If one has to put this in perspective, let’s take a look at the space race across the world.  While United States and Russia already have the capability to launch satellites weighing around 10 to 12 tonnes, our neighbour China is developing its next generation of launch vehicle March V, which is claimed to have a capacity of putting a whopping 14 tonne satellite in the geosynchronous orbit.

Merely developing satellites is not enough as the space available in the geostationary orbit i.e. the orbit around the Earth with an orbital period matching the Earth’s rotational period, is also limited. “Every country has to apply for slots from the United Nations governing body and India presently has just six slots while countries like USA and Russia have several more. Unless we develop bigger and better satellites, we will not be able to meet our communication needs,” says Dr. MYS Prasad.

Of the 1396 satellites that are presently in the geostationary orbit, only 305 are active and only 10 of these satellites belong to our country.

Communication satellites are packed with transponders that relay signals back and forth and every country intends to put as many transponders as possible to meet its communication needs. As of now, India has a total of 228 transponders transmitting signals from ISRO satellites while additional 100-odd transponders have been leased from foreign satellites. The total number of transponders needed by the country is presently around 600 and is expected to grow further with increase in population.

Manned space stations are next frontier for ISRO

In October 1999, when super cyclone 05B crossed the coast off Odisha, around 10,000 people died and millions lost their homes and livelihood. Last year, when another super cyclone Phalin, hit the Odisha coast, the number of deaths had reduced to just two digits, thanks to constant monitoring of the weather system through satellites.

“The devastation could be minimized as our satellites were constantly monitoring the movement of the cyclone system and knew exactly where it could it and when as images were transmitted every 30 minutes,” says  Dr. T.K. Alex, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai Distinguished Professor at ISRO.

Not just with the Odisha cyclone, when floods ravaged Kashmir earlier this year and all communication networks were down, a team of scientists from ISRO rushed to the flood ravaged state and set up satellite phone systems which were the only form of communication for the victims and rescue workers with the rest of the country.

“One cannot really quantify the use of space research and satellites merely through monetary terms, you have to see the big picture,” says Dr. Alex.

He is one of those few Indian scientists who have seen the growth of the Indian Satellite System having played a role in the development of the country’s first satellite Aryabhata (a small experimental satellite) to the latest GSAT-16 that was put in orbit a few days ago.
According to him, the Indian space exploration has come a long way since its inception. 

“There was just one transponder in our first satellite while our latest has 48 of them. Our satellites have constantly become bigger and better over the years and our range of utility has widened from scientific exploration to weather monitoring to communication satellites to our most recent IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System) satellites, out of which three are already in their respective orbits,” he says.

While the space agency has a job at hand of building bigger and better satellites for addressing the country’s communication needs, Dr. Alex feels the next frontier will be manned space missions. “It is extremely important for us to have manned missions as it increases our capability drastically. After all, robots can only deliver so much,” he says.

With the GSLV Mark III-x expected to carry a crew module and test its reentry technology for the first time, scientists at ISRO inch closer to conquer the next frontier. 

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