Another soaring success for ISRO

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Madhusudhana Rao S

If India’s space successes have become legendary, Wednesday’s flawless launch of 104 satellites and placing them in different orbits in one go is a quantum leap in our ambitious programme to conquer outer space and reach new frontiers in science and technology.

Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)’s feat is commendable for two reasons: One, its achievement is a world record; and two, no country in the world has ever attempted such an audacious venture. Moreover, Indian scientists were able to master the complex nature of the mission with minimum cost and high precision which included releasing all the 104 satellites from their respective bays with precise maneuvers.

Of the 104 satellites, varying in size, weight and payload, 101 were foreign. Another significance of the mission was two of the satellites that went up in the sky belonged, one each, to the United Arab Emirates and Israel. In a way, it has symbolic significance that the traditional Arab-Israeli rivalry hardly matters in the quest for knowledge and the differences could always be resolved with a little understanding and compromise. Thus, the ISRO’s record launch could pave way for international cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space. 

The satellites were carried on ISRO’s workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle PSLV-C37 in a single payload. The main satellite was Cartosat-2 and the rest were known as co-passengers, together weighing over 650kg. Of 101 nano satellites, 96 were from the US and one each from Switzerland, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Israel and the UAE.

India got a boost for its space missions when ISRO injected an indigenously built spacecraft into the Martian orbit, millions of km away from Earth, flawlessly, and in the first shot, on September 24, 2014. That was a feat no other country in the world has done so far. The successful entry of Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) into the Red Planet’s outer space on that day (Wednesday!) was truly a giant step for the country’s space programme.

Despite ISRO’s spectacular successes, the space agency is handicapped for want of a more powerful launch vehicle that can put heavy communication satellites weighing over 2,000 kg into geosynchronous orbit. While PSLVs carry light and nano satellites into lower orbit, ISRO requires a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) on which work has been going on to perfect it with cryogenic engines. Unless ISRO perfects GSLV, India can’t compete with biggies like Europe, Russia, China and the US in launching heavy satellites and claim a slice of global telecom business worth billions of dollars. Nevertheless, ISRO tested GSLV-D5 in January 2014 and another GSLV-MarkII in September 2015. Before it soars into sky with heavy payloads, more test launches need to be done to make it ISRO’s new workhorse, according to experts.

Though we have a long way to go to give international clients a low-cost option to launch weather/communication satellites, the successes we have achieved so far bodes well for ISRO’s future. When we look at the way the space research programme has been developing over the years – from a humble beginning to joining the Space Club, that too tapping our indigenous resources and young talent, we should be proud of India’s achievements that are no less than any other country in that field.

When India embarked upon space research over four decades ago with the launch of a sounding rocket in Thumba, Kerala, we were the butt of ridicule in global media for trying to reach the sky carrying a rocket on a bullock cart. Undaunted and with limited resources, our armies of young scientists and engineers have pushed the country into space age, yes, from the age of bullock carts.

Our soaring successes in launching satellites, not only indigenous ones but also clusters of foreign satellites, for both civilian and military use, have put the country in the forefront of space research. We reached the skies much before the world had realized India’s growing potential in outer space and soon we reached the Moon with the Chandrayaan-1 in 2008-09.

Despite scoring well in space launches, criticism abounds: Can the country afford space research at the cost of development? When even more advanced countries like the US have mothballed some of their ambitious inter-planetary probes, why should India embark on lunar and Mars missions and do they anyway help the common man? But what the critics conveniently forget is the spin-off benefits of such research that help us crack the mysteries of Nature and life.

While we applaud our scientific community’s accomplishments in outer space, we wish to see such achievements on the ground as well. Then we need not look into empty space and clap.

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