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Space junk

With the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launching a record 104 satellites with a single rocket, there is a justifiable glow of pride across the country. India, after all, spends 1.2 billion dollars on its space programme, according to World Economic Forum data for 2016. This can be compared to Chi’s $6.1 billion, Russia’s $5.3 billion and the United State’s $39.3 billion space budgets. Focusing on low cost missions, India still gets ‘more bang for the buck’, like the $73 million it spent on its Mars mission. This time, it cost only $ 15 million to launch the reliable PSLV rocket to deploy the 104 satellites in low Earth orbit. Most of these micro and no satellites belonged to countries like the US, Germany, Israel, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Kazakhstan and United Arab Emirates, so failure was not an option for ISRO. With SA facing budget cuts over the years, US space firms have been crying foul at India’s ‘heavily government subsidized’ space programme. As for Chi, its influential state-owned daily Global Times, while admitting that the recent PSLV-C37 launch was a ‘wake-up call’ for the Chinese commercial space sector, still dubbed ISRO’s achievement ‘limited’. Contending that India lags far behind US and Chi in space technology, it argued there is more to this race than ‘the number of satellites launched at one go’. ISRO chairman AS Kiran Kumar in turn has pointed out that India has ‘maged to do things that others have not at low cost.’ The carping by some of ISRO’s competitors go to show how high the stakes are in commercial launches, one crucial segment being the global market for no and micro-satellites estimated to grow to 3 billion dollars in next 3 years.

Countries are now realizing that thanks to miniaturization in electronics, it is much more economical to have several small satellites instead of a large, heavy one — getting in the bargain far better real-time coverage in communication, vigation, weather forecasting, military and other purposes. So even as ISRO is eyeing missions to Mars and Venus, its focus on cheaper satellites and rockets is set to yield dividends commercially. Will that add to the problem of space junk, as some of ISRO’s competitors are known to complain about? It is true that the low Earth orbit is fast becoming a space junkyard, with remnts of defunct satellites, abandoned rockets and assorted space debris. It is estimated there are some 5 lakh big and small pieces circling the Earth at speeds like 30,000 km per hour — thereby ever-present threats for other satellites, space crafts and space stations with astrouts aboard. Presently, there are some 3,000 working satellites up in the sky, but their numbers are set to increase sharply with satellites becoming far smaller and cheaper. Once their lifetimes are over, they will add to the vast quantity of space junk. So a problem talked about since the Sixties is growing to be a real issue, with some space-faring tions mulling strategies to clean up low Earth and geo-synchronous orbits. These include sgging debris with robotic arms or nets, spear them with harpoons, attach sails or tethers to them, or hit them with laser or gas pulses — the idea is to slow down the debris, then drag them into the atmosphere to be vaporized by friction on re-entry. Such strategies are no longer science fiction, rather these are likely to emerge from drawing boards into real missions in near future. Countries may be required to send up satellites which after completing their lifetimes, will automatically fall back to be burnt in the atmosphere. ISRO too is a member of an intertiol debris coordition platform, tracking its own space assets, creating models and software, sharing data and brainstorming over debris removal options. It has also been praised for using one rocket for multiple payloads, thereby contributing lesser to space debris. In the coming days, what space-faring tions bring down will be as important as what they send up, and ISRO seems right on track.

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Ankur Kalita