India’s space odyssey poised for a quantum leap

On June 13, India laid out an ambitious plan to expand its footprints in space often considered the “final frontier” of science and technology. The Indian Space Research Organization Chairman K Sivan talked about the country’s plan to set up a permanent space station by 2026, India’s second unmanned mission to an unchartered territory of the moon in July this year, a manned space mission before 2022, a solar mission Aditya L1, scheduled for launch in 2020, to study the Sun’s outer ring called Corona and its impact on climatic change and a mission to the Venus planned for a tentative launch in 2023 with the objective of studying the atmosphere and surface topography of the planet.

All these clearly underline that India’s quest for a leading space power has come a long way off since starting the journey in 1960s. To begin with, India’s application of space technologies was in keeping with its focus on social welfare programmes using digital technology in a range of areas—communication, education, health, weather forecast and disaster management—not only within the country but also abroad, particularly in Africa. Applications of space technology in areas such as infrastructure, disaster management and security have eased lives of the common people and improved the delivery and transparency of government’s welfare programmes. 

Taking a big leap forward, the ISRO then carved out a niche for itself as a reliable and economical launcher of commercial satellites. It demonstrated its capabilities to put into orbit different kinds of satellites and delivered close to 300 payloads of foreign countries in space in the last 12 years. This service has been an important source of revenue to fund ISRO and will remain so. India’s unmanned mission to the Mars helped cement its status as a cost-effective provider of space technology assistance. 

The ISRO’s future missions to the moon, to study the Sun’s Corona, the Venus, send a manned mission to the space and set up a space station also indicate its readiness to substantially widen its operations relating to inter-planetary exploration and to national security. Nothing illustrates the ISRO’s focus on security than the shooting down a satellite in space in March this year, a capability that puts it in an elite club of countries—the US, Russia and China.    

Chandrayaan-I had hit global news headlines by identifying the presence of water on the moon and the two key objectives of the second moon mission are, according to Sivan, are (a) to extensively map the variations in lunar surface composition in order to trace back the origin and evolution of the moon and (b) focused studies on the extent of water molecule distribution on the surface, below the surface and in the tenuous lunar exosphere to address the origin of water on moon. The second mission to the moon will be challenging for the ISRO. Sivan said the controlled landing of the spacecraft’s rover on the lunar surface is the most challenging task. Chandrayaan-2, consisting of an Orbiter, Lander and Rover, represents a national effort with 500 industries and 15 institutions combining to achieve the desired objectives. The Orbiter will go round the moon at a distance of 100km while Lander and Rover will make a soft-landing on the moon’s surface. India’s second moon mission will for the first time where no mission had been to before—the south pole of the moon. All missions to the moon have so far been to the moon’s equator where there is plenty of sunlight which help solar-powered instruments for investigations. The moon’s south police is also a region with potential of having water, rocks and craters that may give a hint to the evolution of the planet.  

On the forthcoming human space mission, by the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence in 2022, the ISRO has signed an MoU with the Indian Air Force for selection and training of the crew.  The selected astronauts will spend 3-7 days in the lower earth orbit of 120-400 km. it is in this context that India needs to have its own permanent space station where spacecrafts can dock and astronauts can carry out activities. But establishment of a space station will be justified only if a human space mission is successful. 

Once the space station is in place, India’s manned space explorations are likely to go up.

Pallab Bhattacharya is a senior journalist based in India