The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has announced plans to launch its second moon mission, Chandrayaan 2, in March 2018. This will come about 10 years after the space agency launched Chandrayan 1. In the interim, ISRO has sent a mission to Mars with the Mangalyaan, launched a record number of satellites in one go and taken up numerous other programmes which have made it one of the premier space agencies in the world.
We take a closer look at ISRO, from its origins to the success stories it has scripted over the years.
India took the first steps in its space programme in the 1960s under the guidance of Dr Vikram Sarabhai. This was around the time that countries like the US had begun experimenting with the use of satellites for communication, including TV broadcasts. Dr Sarabhai and his team of scientists were quick to realise the benefits of satellites in the Indian context.
In 1968, the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) was established near Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. This station was used to launch the US-made Nike Apache rocket in 1963.
The first significant use of satellite communication for nation building was with Krishi Darshan, a TV programme for farmers. After its success, came the ambitious and landmark Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE). Launched in the mid-seventies using an American satellite, it transmitted science and development oriented programmes to over 2,000 villages across six states.
The launch of Aryabhata, the first satellite fully designed and manufactured in India, on 19 April 1975, was a landmark in India’s space programme. Another big leap in the demonstration of capability was the development of the first Satellite Launch Vehicle, SLV 3, which successfully placed the Rohini satellite in orbit in July 1980.
This decade saw numerous experiments which bolstered the Indian space scientists’ expertise and confidence. The experimental satellites Bhaskara I (1979) and Bhaskara II (1981) laid the foundation for remote sensing applications. Similarly, the success of the indigenous Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment or APPLE (1981) paved the way for future communication satellites.
The decade of the nineties saw the creation of a robust network of satellites and launch vehicles. ISRO came up with the multipurpose Indian National Satellite (INSAT) system for communication, broadcasting and meteorology. The other important category was the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellite system. In the meantime, ISRO also continued work on the development and launch of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).
ISRO, which regularly launches satellites for other countries, is now working on the Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology.
First Indian In Space
In the early eighties, it was decided that it was time send an Indian into space in collaboration with Russia. The man chosen for this historic mission was a fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force, Rakesh Sharma. After intense preparations lasting nearly one-and-a-half years, he was finally ready for the momentous journey. He flew aboard the Russian Soyuz T-11 spacecraft on 2 April 1984 and spent over seven days in space. Asked how he felt seeing India from space, he famously said “Saare jahan se acchha..”.
Mangalyaan (Mars Orbiter Mission): India’s first foray into interplanetary space is the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Also known as Mangalyaan, the mission was launched on November 5, 2013 with the objective of studying the surface, mineralogy, morphology and atmosphere of Mars.
Chandrayaan: India’s first mission to the moon, Chandrayaan 1, was launched on October 22, 2008. The objective of the mission, which had a life span of two years, was chemical, mineralogical and photo-geologic mapping of the moon. The second lunar mission, Chandrayaan 2, is scheduled for 2018.
Launching 104 satellites: On February 15, 2017, ISRO added another feather to its cap when one of its rockets launched as many as 104 satellites! These included India’s Cartosat-2 Series Satellite, two Indian Nano-Satellites and 101 foreign nano-satellites. These foreign nano-satellites were from Israel, Kazakhstan, Switzerland, The Netherlands, UAE and the USA.
Dr Vikram Sarabhai
Considered the father of the Indian space programme, Dr Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai, was instrumental in setting up the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad in 1947. His biggest contribution, however, was convincing the central government to create the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) which he headed as chairman from 1963 to 1971. This period saw the establishment of India’s first rocket launching station and implementation of some ambitious programmes.
Prof Satish Dhawan
The 1920-born rocket scientist succeeded Dr Vikram Sarabhai as ISRO Chairman in 1972. It was his pioneering efforts which led to the establishment of the INSAT and IRS systems. He also played a key role in the development of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) which placed India in an elite group of nations which had such capability.
Prof U R Rao
An internationally renowned space scientist, it was under his guidance that ISRO designed a series of satellites beginning with the Aryabhata in 1975. He took over as the agency’s chairman in 1984 and speeded up the development of rocket technology. He is also credited with initiating the development of the Geostationary Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and cryogenic technology.
The spacecraft developed and launched in India cover a wide range of needs and applications. These include Communication Satellites like the INSAT and GSAT systems; Earth Observation Satellites like the IRS, CARTOSAT and OCEANSAT systems; Navigation Satellites like the IRNSS system to meet civil aviation needs; Experimental Satellites like the Aryabhata, APPLE and INS and Small Satellites like the SARAL and YOUTHSAT. ISRO is now also encouraging the development of Student Satellites by universities and other academic institutions.
India’s space programme is very active in the fields of astronomy, astrophysics, planetary and earth sciences, atmospheric sciences and theoretical physics. According to ISRO, research in these fields is supported by a network of balloons, sounding rockets, space platforms and ground-based facilities. Important initiatives in this direction are the Mars Orbiter Mission, Chandrayaan 1 and 2, and the AstroSat.