Where are we in the space race?

Jun 2, 2022

Space exploration has gained importance over the past few years and has become useful in a nation’s technological development. As we learn about other nations’ space programmes and the new discoveries made by them, contributing to our better understanding of space, we might have thoughts on where we stand as a nation in this area of science and what we have done to help clear up the mysteries of space. It will always be a moment of pride when we launch a satellite successfully and use data from it to interpret various details of outer space. It is one way of showcasing our country’s talent in front of the world. At the same time, it is a moment of achievement and encouragement for our researchers. Let us see how we developed a space organisation, its objectives, the missions it has carried out until now, and the future missions.

India is gradually achieving its space ambitions. Even though it is a developing country, India, together with its great visionaries, has accomplished many milestones in space exploration and has made its position clear in space research along with the few other countries that are able to reach there. Understanding the importance of space research, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, later known as the father of the Indian Space Programme, developed the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) in 1962 along with Dr. Homi Bhabha (Indian National Committee for Space Research - Wikipedia, n.d.) (Vikram Sarabhai - INSIGHTSIAS, n.d.). This was later turned into our prestigious Indian Space Research Organisation.

In late 1962, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, along with other scientists (including our former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam), went and met the Bishop of the church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, in Thumba, Trivandrum, asking permission to acquire the site for India’s first rocket launching station. Dr. Sarabhai thought this location was ideal for rocket launches because it was near the earth's magnetic equator. A magnetic equator is the line formed joining all the points when the magnetic needle comes to rest horizontally when it is suspended freely.

The Bishop invited all of them to the Sunday service and explained everything to the church congregation, who were the local people staying in the village of Thumba. They agreed and moved to a new area, giving this fishing village to the Indian Space Rocket Launching Station. It was named the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) and later renamed the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (The Fascinating Story of India’s First Rocket Launch, n.d.).

Two scientists carrying parts of a rocket on a bicycle to Thumba

No much funding or facilities were provided for the researchers working there. The Bishop’s house was turned into an office, and the church was used as a workshop. They had to go to the nearest railway station for meals as the canteen was not available. The image of two young men carrying parts of the rocket on a bicycle says it all. The unavailability of facilities did not stop the young researchers from working hard on the project; they were more determined and hard-working with the dream of launching a rocket from there.

Finally, on November 21st, 1963, India launched its very first sounding rocket from Thumba. Later, in 1979, India’s major launching station was shifted to Sriharikota. In 1975, ISRO built its first satellite named Aryabhata and launched it into space with the help of the U-11Interkosmos (Milestones in Indian Space Programmes, n.d.), the launch vehicle made by the then Soviet Union. It had to undergo a power failure four days after the launch.

In 1981, after a few failed missions, India launched its first geostationary communication satellite, named APPLE (Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment) which was used in relaying TV programmes and other communication services. The picture shows an ancient method which the researchers resorted to for testing the satellite’s antenna as there was no proper facility with ISRO around 40 years ago (The Rocket Science behind the Bullock Cart in India’s Space Story, n.d.). In the next decade, the INSAT (Indian National Satellite) series of communication satellites was launched, which is considered one of the largest communication satellite systems in the Asia-Pacific region. Later, the GSAT (geosynchronous satellite) series were also placed in orbit, which made India self-reliant in the broadcasting sector. It is used in telecommunications, TV broadcasting, warning against disasters, etc. The GSLV (Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle) was developed for launching communication satellites.

Testing APPLE satellite on a bullock cart

In 1984, Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian to go to space and spent 8 days in the Salyut-7 Soviet space station (Rakesh Sharma - First Indian in Space, n.d.). India also spent valuable time developing and launching IRS (Indian Remote Sensing) satellites, which are used for managing natural resources such as water, forests, agriculture, and the environment, as well as urban planning, rural development, and disaster management (Types of Satellites Launched by ISRO, n.d.). PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) is used for launching remote sensing satellites (Isro: Goals and Objectives, n.d.-a).

As per the vision of the founders of ISRO, India has used space science for the development of the nation and continues to do so in order to achieve the best. The main objectives of ISRO include education and communication using satellites, managing natural resources by monitoring them using remote sensing technology, and warning against weather conditions. It also focuses on developing its own satellites and launch vehicles. Vikram Sarabhai emphasised that we, as a country, should always be at the forefront of using advance technologies to find the solutions to the real problems of mankind (Isro: Goals and Objectives, n.d.-b). ISRO also sends experimental satellites, navigation satellites, small satellites, and student satellites into the space. A few prestigious satellite missions of ISRO are listed below:

Chandrayaan-1: It was launched successfully from Sriharikota on October 22nd, 2008 to study the moon. It was India’s first mission into deep space. It was first sent into the geostationary transfer orbit and later into lunar orbit. It went non-functional in August 2009, due to power failures, mostly because of overheating, but it had achieved its major goals by then. The major objectives of Chandrayaan-1 were to study the surface of the moon to understand its chemical and mineralogical distribution (Magnesium, Aluminium, Silicon, Calcium, Iron, Uranium, and Thorium). It was also to perform high-resolution remote sensing of the moon using the visible, near infra-red, low and high-energy X-ray radiation (PSLV-C11/ Chandrayaan-1 - ISRO, n.d.). The major finding that was revealed in this short mission was the confirmation of the presence of water in the minerals on the moon. An impactor was made to crash-land deliberately on the moon so that the debris could be studied by the orbiting spacecraft (In Depth | Chandrayaan 1 – NASA Solar System Exploration, n.d.).

Astrosat:It was launched on September 28th, 2015 from the Sathish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, using PSLV-C30. It is India’s first space observatory dedicated to multi-wavelength observation of celestial bodies simultaneously (Space Science & Exploration - ISRO, n.d.). A more detailed study of the universe is possible by observing through the X-ray, optical, and UV bands simultaneously. It can be used to detect new x-ray sources in the sky, search for new star birth and processes in star systems beyond our galaxy, and survey the universe using UV radiation (AstroSat - ISSDC, n.d.).

Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM):The Mangalyaan (or the Mars vehicle) was launched on November 5th, 2013. It was ISRO’s first mission to another planet, and it was successful. Thus, India became the first country to put an orbiter into the orbit of Mars in its maiden attempt. It was a comparatively cheaper budget ($75 million) when compared with NASA’s MAVEN ($485 million for development alone), which was widely appreciated even though few mocked it (Mission Mangal: ISRO’s Low Budget Mangalyaan Is the Most Cost-Effective Mission to Mars Ever | Tech News, n.d.). The main objective of MOM was to explore the atmosphere, surface, and minerals. It was also decided to specifically study the presence of methane gas, which can throw light on the question of the probability of life in the past or in the present. This mission helped to understand how to design and sustain in another planet’s orbit and also earned India the Space Pioneer Award in 2015 (From Carrying The Rocket On A Bicycle To Launching 104 Satellites At A Time - ISRO’s Inspiring Journey, n.d.).

Cartoon that came in New York Times for which they had to issue an apology later

In 2017, February ISRO made another launch which made India stand up with great pride among the other nations of the world. It was the historic moment of deploying 104 satellites into the sun-synchronous orbit in one launch. PSLV-C 37, carrying 104 satellites, was launched from Sriharikota (PSLV-C37 - Wikipedia, n.d.)(PSLV-C37 Successfully Launches 104 Satellites in a Single Flight - ISRO, n.d.).

Chandrayaan-2: This prestigious second mission to the moon was launched from Sriharikota on July 22nd, 2019. It was the first attempt by ISRO to land a rover and get clearer data about the moon. It contained the lunar orbiter, the Vikram lander, and the Pragyan lunar rover, but the Vikram lander ended in a crash landing on the lunar surface. Even though the lander and the rover crashed, the orbiter continued to send data. It contains an infrared spectrometer that will be searching for signs of hydroxyl and water ice near the South Pole of the Moon (India’s Vikram Spacecraft Apparently… | The Planetary Society, n.d.) (Chandrayaan-2 - ISSDC, n.d.).

ISRO maintains high hopes and works tirelessly to make the nation proud by conducting groundbreaking research in the fields of space exploration, astrobiology, astrophysics, and astronomy. Even though India is a developing country, it hasn’t left any opportunity without trying, even if we have had a few failures too. The future plans of ISRO include the Gaganyaan mission, which will send three Indian astronauts (including women) into space for the first time, Shukrayaan, which is a mission to Venus, and hopefully, there will be a Mars Orbiter Mission-2 (India On Mars? Despite Failed Moon Landing Expect Orbital Spaceflight And Missions To Venus And Mars, n.d.). As per the reports, the second mission to Mars might be a collaborative mission with NASA, including a lander or rover to study the Martian surface in more detail, and it will contribute more to the research in the field of astrobiology (NASA, India Join Hands for Astrobiology Mission - The Hindu, n.d.). Let us hopefully wait for ISRO to set new milestones in space. India worked hard to make a name for itself in space exploration, despite its humble beginnings. We have received a great deal using space technology and will continue to get it.


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