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Friday, March 17, 2017

ISRO Makes History

On the bright morning of 15th February, the work horse of Indian Space Research Organization, the four-stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle taking off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota successfully deployed 104 satellites—a quantum jump from the Russian record of 37.
As the rocket hit a velocity of 7609.52 metres per second by 17 minutes and 30 seconds after lift-off, India’s Cartosat-2, the prime payload was separated from the mothership and moving into its orbit generated loud cheers from the mission control room. Within seconds, the other two satellites of India were placed in the orbit. After 18 minutes and 32.3 seconds, the first pair of foreign Nano-satellites were separated and within half an hour after lift-off the placement of all the 104 satellites in orbit was completed.
Of the 101 foreign satellites launched, 96 belong to a private firm called Planet Labs from the US that is engaged in selling data to Google. But what is more distinct about the launching of 104 satellites in a single launch is the demonstration of ISRO’s mastery over technology—for, calculating and managing the various trajectories for that many satellites is a pretty complex task.
Admittedly, 90% of the satellites were of micro category weighing less than 10 kg each. Nevertheless, the complexities involved in their launching are pretty high, for there is always a danger of satellites released in such a rapid-fire fashion from a single rocket traveling at 17,000 miles an hour colliding with each other in space, should they get ejected into the wrong path.
It is this mastery over technology—injecting of satellites in pairs in opposite directions successively as the vehicle rotated by a few degrees that ensured change in separation angle and time of separation so as to prevent any collision—associated with the launching of a flock of 104 satellites into space within minutes, that too, at such a frugal cost that establishes ISRO as a “key player” in the global multi-billion dollar market for launching of satellites.
Although ISRO views its launch not as a mission to set a world record but more as an opportunity to utilize the full capacity of the launch vehicle, it is quite laudable that ISRO, a government agency is doing so well in exploiting the opportunities thrown open by the mini- and Nano-satellite global market.
That said, ISRO cannot afford to rest on the laurels— laurels from the national and international press—for if it has to find a place alongside NASA, Roscosmos and others in the global commercial market that is looking for players who could launch satellites weighing 3,500 kg and above, it must soon develop capabilities to launch heavier satellites. Which means, it must acquire the know-how for designing and fabricating cryogenic engines. What otherwise becomes obvious is: sooner its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle becomes operational, the faster the ISRO can push itself into the market of launching heavier satellites.

It is however heartening to hear from the Chairman of ISRO that it is getting itself readied to launch Gsat-19 with GSLV in March. Though ISRO has for now stabilized its GSLV technology, there is a disturbing feature underneath it: it is mostly with the usage of Russian built cryogenic engines. And there were many false starts and a few failed tests too. 

Encouragingly, ISRO has used indigenously built cryogenic engine on an operational GSLV-MK II rocket for the first time in September last year to successfully launch INSAT-3DR satellite in a geostationary transfer orbit around earth. Now that India is a member of Missile Control Technology Regime, it should be able to access rocket-related technology from western players much easily than in the past. Nevertheless, the government has a role to play here: it should subtly facilitate such acquisition of required know-how by deftly handling the government-to-government negotiations—wherever warranted—actively and effectively.  
So, what it all means is: ISRO must soon build up necessary wherewithal to master the rocket technology to fulfil its ambitions to become a dependable low cost launcher of heavier satellites in the global market, for that matter even that of the nation … amen!


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