The recent exciting developments in the country’s rocketry, satellite launch and space programmes have not only further raised its profile abroad, but also promise vast spin-off benefits in urban planning, agriculture and defence. Last Thursday, communication satellite GSAT-6 was launched in ‘textbook’ style into space. After it is raised gradually to its fil slot in the geosynchronous orbit, its special giant anten will help defence forces communicate with small hand-held devices in remote areas. With modern battlefields becoming network-centric, such communication through secure channels has become vital. What is further remarkable is that this 2.1 tonne home-made satellite was powered by a home-made cryogenic engine as well, onboard a GSLV Mark-II rocket. For over two decades, Indian rocket scientists laboured hard over this powerful engine, as its technology was denied by the US. The cryogenic engine gives a higher thrust for every kilogram of liquid propellant it burns, which ebles the geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV) to lob a heavy satellite into orbit at 36-42 thousand km heights, which makes the satellite appear statiory to ground-based observers. After major delays and frustrations, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) filly tasted success in January 2014 when it launched an experimental satellite smoothly.
ISRO scientists are now planning to tweak the indigenous cryogenic engine to lift higher payloads weighing up to 2.5 tonnes by July next year. Once this capability is acquired, ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix Corporation can enter the highly lucrative market of commercial satellite launch in the 2.2 to 2.5 tonne category. Presently, Antrix is using its workhorse PSLV rockets, powered by solid propellants, to sling lighter satellites into lower earth orbits. It has already launched around 45 satellites primarily for European companies and foreign universities, and has orders to launch 28 satellites more in the next three years. The launch cost of the highly reliable polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) is one-third compared to rockets used by European, Russian and Chinese agencies. ISRO has also announced plans to share satellite manufacturing technology with private Indian companies to help build up indigenous capability and tap the market for small commercial satellites. So far Antrix has done well with small and micro satellites, but it is time to move up to heavier categories. The country has to spend at least Rs 500 crores to send up 3.5 tonne communication satellites by Ariane rockets of the European Space Agency (ESA). So as the GSLV technology matures, ISRO and Antrix can save as well as earn huge foreign exchange for the country.
Meanwhile, ISRO’s Mars exploration programme has been doing spectacularly well. Its orbiter Mangalyaan recently beamed back razor-sharp 3D images of a canyon system there, estimated to be the largest in the solar system. Mangalyaan is among the five active spacecrafts presently orbiting the red planet, with the others belonging to US and Europe. India and US are now collaborating to put an earth observation satellite med ‘Nisar’ in orbit by 2021, to be carried aloft by a GSLV Mark II rocket. The satellite will measure intrinsic changes of the Earth’s surface associated with motions of its crust and ice surfaces. Of particular interest to ISRO will be ‘Nisar’ monitoring the agricultural biomass over India, snow and glacier cover on the Himalayas, the country’s coastline and near-shore ocean areas, disaster warning and assessment. So how the ISRO designs its projects will determine their relevance and social acceptability. One such project is indispensable for success of the ‘Smart Cities’ campaign, with the ISRO tying up with the Union urban development ministry. The ‘Bhuvan’ platform will be using highly accurate satellite images to map 500 towns and cities initially, eventually targeted to cover over 4 thousand urban areas. It aims to help town planners make better master plans by factoring in topography, available tural resources, projected population growth and heritage sites and monuments that need protection. Another project to bring space technology closer to the masses is an exclusive satellite for farmers which the Central government announced in Parliament recently. With the agriculture sector still growing slowly, the need for real time data on weather forecast, soil moisture, cropping and agro-advisory services is growing by the day.