Chairman, ISRO and Secretary, Department of Space, K Sivan, shared a new year message.
It has been a little more than 5 years since ISRO shared it’s Space Vision documents, it usually shares. I think this had something to do with the failure of the GSLVs in the first half of the last decade. With both, GSLV Mk-II and GSLV Mk-III operationalized, I was hoping that ISRO would start the process of planning it’s space missions again. ISRO’s former Chairman, G Madhavan Nair recently criticised ISRO for this shortcoming. Thus, I was happy to read that an institutional level decadal plan has been drawn up and inputs were received from most ISRO centers.
I particularly like the use of the word ‘resourcefulness’. This has been used to describe ISRO in the past and I think Sivan might have re-discovered the word. I prefer this word to describe ISRO’s innovative use of limited resources. I prefer this word instead of the low-cost and jugaad descriptors that media has been using for ISRO since the Mars Orbiter Mission.
Space Transportation Systems
The Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (VSSC) at Thiruvananthapuram is ISRO’s principal space transportation systems center. VSSC has rightly identified heavy lift as an important challenge for India. If India is to plan even slightly more complex lunar missions or even useful Mars mission, it requires more power than what it currently has. The development of a heavy lift vehicle is an important step in building up capability in this aspect. With ISRO’s thrust in this decadal plan being towards human spaceflight, this will be an important requirement for launching space stations in the future.
Another aspect that VSSC has to focus on is the number of launches it’s launch vehicles can offer. ISRO has set targets of 10 launches per year in the past, a target it has not yet achieved. Being able to reach that target in this decade would be a fundamental confidence booster. With talk of commercialisation of the PSLV stages, there will be hope that the constraint will not rise from the supply side.
Also, VSSC will have to deliver on important technologies like the scramjet, testing of the reusable launch vehicle and partial reusability made popular now by SpaceX.
STS needs support from the other centers as well. The Liquid Propulsion Systems Center (LPSC) in Mahendragiri will play a vital role in development of the semi-cryogenic engine required for the Heavy Launch Vehicle. There will be no use developing these systems without the support of the Satish Dhawan Space Center (SDSC) at Shriharikota. SDSC will need to ramp up its infrastructure for a more busy schedule. Adding to it’s manifest this decade will be private launch vehicles other than the one’s from ISRO. Skyroot’s Vikram 1 could be the first privately launched launch vehicle from SDSC as early as December 2021. Also, not to forget, this decade could see Indians launching on an Indian rocket from Indian soil.
The U R Rao Satellite Center (URSC) in Bengaluru will also have to increase the production of satellites. India currently has one-fourth the number of operational payload of China. Earlier, it’s complaint has been that the satellites it built don’t get to orbit. With those problems sorted and with more options opening up to go into orbit, URSC has the opportunity to build satellite constellations, build innovative space infrastructure like space stations, in-space satellite servicing and maybe even satellites that dock with each other. Besides, new innovations, URSC also has to build and launch satellites that are needed for various applications like remote sensing, meteorology, communications, navigation and geographic information systems.
As a country, I think we have not integrated space enough into various parts of the Indian economy. Many of the NewSpace companies are now offering this service directly to customers. Space Applications Center (SAC), Ahmedabad and National Remote Sensing Center (NRSC), Hyderabad must now also be centers where data is exchanged with private players and not only government players. This has to be provided with minimal down time and with high accuracy. Besides building technologies that enable this in space and on Earth, they have a vital role to play to support requirements of the Indian government and NewSpace applications providers.
Space Situational Awareness
ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Center (ISTRAC), in Bengaluru has an important role to play in space situational awareness. As we launch more satellites into orbit including those by private companies, space situational awareness becomes more important. There is a real threat from our neighbours who have direct kinetic weapons, co-situated orbital weapons and cyber weapons in their kits. The recent operationalisation of the Space Situational Awareness center is a step in the right direction. Transparency in sharing data and collection of data by the center will improve its capability and hence prove to be an active player in the world in the matter of space situational awareness.
Science vs Engineering
While IIST provides the engineers who work at ISRO, an important complaint with ISRO has been the lack of science impact on it’s missions. I hope that in this decade, the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) at Ahmedabad works closely with other scientific institutions in the country to get more science per kilogram of payload available on ISRO’s satellites and outer space missions. The role of a scientist needs to shift from few to all stages of the mission. The engineers need to understand what the scientists want the satellite to do. The scientists need to understand the limitations of engineering payloads. I think PRL can facilitate this much better than any scientific institution in the country.
IIST will continue to provide ISRO with the engineers it needs but PRL needs to be made ready to provide the scientists who will provide challenges to engineers for unique space missions.
ISRO needs to formalize the plans laid down by the Chairman. I think having plans will help ISRO plan and execute better. It will place more stress on time-bound completion of projects. It will make the organization ready for the challenges awaiting it while we compete not only with other nations but large private players. The Chairman talks about a transition to the knowledge economy but I think, in space we have moved from a knowledge economy to an utilization economy.
A utilization economy is one where space know-how is used for utilization of space-enabled data in the economy of Earth, utilization of space-based resources and possibly one day an economy that spans Earth-Moon and Mars as dreamed by our former President, A P J Abdul Kalam.