Indian Space Research Organisation will turn 50 next year. K Radhakrishnan, Isro’s former head who oversaw the Mars Orbiter Mission (popularly called ‘Mangalyaan’) – which established India as the first country to have a successful mission to Mars in its maiden attempt – gives an overview of the organisation’s performance and future goals in a conversation with Sugandha Indulkar:
India’s satellite launch vehicles have proved their commercial value. What’s the next stage of development?
Global market for small satellites (below 500 kg) continues to be buoyant and our competitive edge for PSLV (polar satellite launch vehicle) needs to be sustained. GSLV (geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle) Mk3 has the prospect to place 4,000 kg communication satellites into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) and it could be upgraded with semi-cryogenic stage to loft up to 6,500 kg. Meanwhile, advent of electric propulsion will replace hefty mass of chemical propulsion system and many of the upcoming communication satellites, domestic and foreign, might well be within this envelope.
The new focus for development could be reusable orbital re-entry vehicle for cargo and human transportation between Earth and Moon within a decade.
In recent times what would you consider as the top achievements of Isro? And its top failures?
Within a span of 50 days (5 May–23 June 2017), Isro launched a PSLV, a GSLV and GSLV Mk3, successfully orbiting three classes of satellites namely Cartosat-2 (high resolution remote sensing), GSAT-9 (South Asian Satellite) and GSAT-19 (forerunner of next generation communication infrastructure).
Failure of a PSLV after an unblemished record of 39 flights was a wake-up call for quality management, but Isro came back with success in January 2018. Loss of communication with GSAT-6A was disquieting, but Isro took swift actions to avert such failure modes in satellites in the pipeline. Recalling GSAT-11 (first satellite of India’s high power 6K satellite for nation-wide data connectivity) from the launch base is a case in point.
Isro had a few failures of the Rubidium atomic clocks imported for IRNSS-1 series. Indigenous route for such highly accurate, ultra-stable atomic clocks is progressing well.
What are the concerns apart from funding that ail Indian space research? What solutions can you offer to overcome these problems?
Isro’s precious human capital should be maximally earmarked for cutting edge research in pristine domains of space exploration, development in frontiers of space technology and innovations in space applications.
We need a national industrial entity to take charge of producing and servicing the growing domestic needs for operational satellites and launch vehicles, with minimal hand-holding from experts of Isro. We have an excellent base in the country of nearly 150 firms to count upon for this mammoth task, but the challenge is their elevating themselves to handle higher levels of value chain, and to orchestrate towards an ecosystem to deliver the mission as Isro does today.
How long will India take to enter the arena of commercial space travel?
India has to venture into the next logical step for human presence in solar system. What we need is a national intent and road map for human spaceflight to the Earth’s orbit, Moon and then maybe at a later date to Mars – that is fundamental to India’s positioning among the space comity in the future.
Coming to specifics, Isro has done extensive studies and taken a few baby steps in critical new technologies and re-entry and recovery experiment of unmanned crew module. Isro is now quite active on the next steps forward. My assessment is that, given a national mandate, India could target the first human space flight within next 6-7 years or even earlier if international cooperation is feasible.
US is the undisputed leader when it comes to space research. How long do you think India will take to at least equal its achievements?
We are not in any space race. Each nation has its own vision, road map and priorities for space activity, consistent with their needs, aspirations and resources.
Global media talks about intellectual and technical cooperation between nations when it comes to space research. Is this realistic?
Space missions are quite large, complex and risky, besides the large gestation time and associated costs. Hence partnerships – bilateral or multilateral – have come to stay even while competition exists. The cardinal consideration is individual partner’s strengths and ease of working.
What was the most challenging moment in your tenure as chairman of Isro?
Obviously, the Mars Orbiter Mission with all its complexities and the self-imposed schedule to fly it in 2013. The second challenge was flying GSLV successfully, that too with Indian cryogenic stage. Thirdly, development of GSLV Mk3 and its maiden experimental flight along with an unmanned crew module was a new terrain to traverse.
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