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ISRO makes history, exciting times ahead

By Dilip Ghosh

Indian Space Research Organisation, ISRO made history on February 15 last when its PSLV rocket placed 104 satellites into the space in a single mission. The record for highest number of satellites launched in one go was till then held by Russia. It’s rocket Dnepr which was a converted ICBM, launched 37 satellites in June 2014. Earlier, the US space agency NASA had launched 29 satellites in a single mission in 2013.

The ISRO used its mightiest rocket this time, the one used in Chandrayaan and Mars Orbiter Missions. The 320 ton rocket PSLV–C37 carried a 714 kg CARTOSAT–2, two ISRO nano satellites INS A and INS B  and 101 foreign satellites of different countries including the US, Israel and UAE together weighing about 700 kg, and placed them into polar Sun synchronous orbit about 520 km away from the Earth.

While the high resolution CARTOSAT-2 will monitor the movements of even one metre long vehicle and goods in our neighborhood, the two nano satellites are for technology demonstration. The images sent by CARTOSAT-2 will also be useful for the country  in coastal land use, road network monitoring, distribution of water and creation of land use maps.

The successful launch of 104 satellites in one go by an ISRO rocket has been hailed not only by President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi but also by internationally known space experts. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation commented a day before the launch of the satellites that it is going to be a big deal. She said, it shows the sophistication of India’s space program. Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor and space specialist at the US Naval War College  thought that it was a mission aimed at what he called “anything that gets you into the records book,nlike breaking the Russian satellite launch record.

Ever since ISRO sent 23 satellites into space in a single mission in June 2015, the scientists of the space agency were almost confident that they would achieve this majestic feat also. Dr. K. Sivan, Director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram explained in response to a query from a newsman a few days back how the satellites were going to be placed into orbit. He said, the every satellite would be separated in a different angle and at a different time from the launch vehicle in order to prevent collision between satellites. The satellite that got launched first would move at a relatively faster velocity than the next satellite that was to be launched. Due to different relative velocities, the distance between the satellites would increase continuously but the orbit would be the same, Sivan said.

But, when did the ISRO’s glorious journey begin? India’s Mangalyaan probe which started in November 2013, Asia’s first successful Mars orbiter, in fact, forced the world to take note of this space program. The probe was sent to the Red Planet for only 74 million dollars, less than the 100 million dollars the Hollywood spent making the space thriller “Gravity.” The success gave Mangalyaan its pride of place on India’s new 2,000 rupee note. Ms Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan said, the Mars mission was not just a “sound and light show”. It established India’s credibility as a space power and translated into tangible economic benefits when it came to the big business of satellite launches.

Professor Johnson-Freese says, recognition of the multifaceted benefits from space exploration and space technology dates back to the Apollo program. He said, Asian countries have been following that model and seeking those benefits ever since. To date India has launched 79 satellites from 21 countries, including satellites from big companies like Google and Airbus. According to Government figures, India earned at least 157 million dollars from these launches, he said.

All the three Asian giants, India, China and Japan have now made bold space exploration plans for 2017 and beyond. In the first half of 2018, India plans to launch its second lunar mission — in 2008, it became the fourth country to plant its flag on the moon after the US, Russia and China. The Chandrayaan-2 will orbit, land and send a wheeled rover on the moon to collect lunar rock and soil. India is also planning a mission to study the sun. Besides, it proposes mission to Venus and a follow up to its first Mars mission. Last year, India tested a reusable launch vehicle which resembles the US space shuttle.

China,  perhaps the most rapidly accelerating space power, is planning to test its Tianzhou-1 cargo and resupply spacecraft in April this year. The plan is aimed at maintaining the supply line for the country’s space station that’s expected to be up and running by 2022. Later this year, China will send a probe to the moon that will collect and return with soil sample. By the end of the decade, China says, it will have also become the first country to land on the far side of the moon and also land a rover on Mars. Japan is also not to be lagging behind. It wants to send an unmanned rover on the moon’s surface in the next year itself. (PIB)

(The author writes regularly on science and technology)

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