The Indian space programme has come a long way in the 57 years since its inception. From a fledgling Sounding Rocket Launch Facility established in the early 1960s in Thumba near Trivandrum, it has matured into a giant world-class space power. Today, ISRO sprawls across the country with huge launch stations, tracking centers, R&D facilities and manufacturing and data processing units, all engaged in highly sophisticated and complex technological activities.
The Indian space programme began in a modest way in 1962 with the formation of the Indian National Committee on Space Research (INCOSPAR), barely five years after the launch of the Earth’s first artificial satellite Sputnik-1, that heralded the space age. This farsighted critical decision and the later perseverant philosophy of the people who steered the programme, facilitated India to master space technology.
ISRO conducted two significant experiments in the 70’s - SITE and STEP- to obtain hands on experience on the utilisation of satellites for television broadcasting and telecommunications. And, it was in this decade that ISRO developed its first Satellite Launch Vehicle SLV-3, which had its successful launch on July 18, 1980 thrusting India into the select league of six countries with the capability to launch satellites on their own.
Today, India has a fleet of advanced remote sensing satellites equipped with high resolution and multispectral cameras dedicated to the themes of cartography, resource survey and ocean and atmospheric applications. Apart from these polar orbit-based observation satellites, weather watching satellites INSAT-3D and INSAT-3DR-circling the earth in the 36,000 km high geosynchronous orbit, are providing valuable inputs to weather forecasting. Apart from these satellites, the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) system today is one of the largest domestic communication satellite systems in Asia-Pacific region.
The INSAT system with over 300 transponders in the C-band, Extended C-band, Ku-band, Ka/Ku band and S-band provides services to telecommunications, television broadcasting, radio networking, satellite newsgathering, societal applications, weather forecasting, disaster warning and Search and Rescue operations. High throughput satellites such as GSAT-1I, GSAT- 29 and GSAT-19 are supporting the “Digital India’’ campaign by boosting the broadband connectivity to the rural and inaccessible Gram Panchayats in the country. The transponders on these satellites will bridge the digital divide of users including those in Jammu & Kashmir and North Eastern regions of India.
Perfecting the launch vehicle technology is an immensely difficult and challenging task. Thus, only a few countries possess it. Till now, ISRO has developed five launch vehicles (SLV-3, ASLV, PSLV, GSLV and GSLV Mk 111 which is also known as LVM3) and mastered the technology of rockets that use solid, liquid as well as cryogenic propellants.
India developed its first launch vehicle SLV-3 in the 70s and persevered to perfect its second generation launch vehicle ASLV during the 80s and early 90s. PSLV, India’s first launch vehicle capable of launching large satellites, had its first successful flight in 1994.
Launch of 104 Satellites by PSLV-C37
Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark II (GSLV Mk II) is fourth generation launch vehicle having three stages (including the cryogenic upper stage) with four liquid strapons. Cryogenic technology involves storage of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen at very low temperatures Materials used to operate at these very low temperatures, chilling processes, interplay of engine parameters make the development of cryogenic stage a very challenging and complex task.
The space science missions of India-Chandrayaan-1, Mars Orbiter Mission, Astrosat and Chandrayaan-2 -have caught the attention of millions of Indians as well as the outside world.
Launched by PSLV on October 22, 2008, the 1380 kg Chandrayaan- 1 spacecraft was successfully navigated to the Moon in three weeks and was put into an orbit around the moon. On November 14, 2008, when a TV set sized ‘Moon Impact Probe’ separated from Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft and successfully impacted on the surface of the moon, India became the fourth country to send a probe to the lunar surface after the United States, the Soviet Union and Japan. Later, when Chandrayaan-1 conclusively discovered water molecules on the lunar surface, it was widely hailed as a path-breaking discovery.
AstroSat launched by PSLV in September 2015, is the first dedicated Indian astronomy mission aimed at studying celestial sources in X-ray, optical and UV spectral bands simultaneously. AstroSat recently made a major breakthrough by discovering one of the earliest galaxies in extreme-Ultraviolet light.
The Chandrayaan-2 mission, India’s second mission to the moon, was successfully launched on July 22, 2019. Chandrayaan-2 Orbiter spacecraft was placed in its intended orbit. The eight instalments onboard the Orbiter are continuously providing useful science data which will enrich our understanding of the moon’s evolution and mapping of the minerals and water molecules in Polar regions.
The “Gaganyaan Programme” approved by the Government of India in 2018 is a point of inflection in the growth profile of India’s space endeavour, marking a seminal foray into the new age of human space exploration. The Human Space Flight Centre (HSFC) was constituted in ISRO in January, 2019 for implementing the vision on human space flight programme.
The Indian space programme has many challenges ahead. There are plans to build heavier and more capable and efficient satellites.
And, space science missions like Chandrayaan-3, Aditya-L1, Mission to Venus to further explore the solar system, are in progress. Pursuit of research and development activities pertaining to small satellite launch vehicle, air breathing rocket propulsion and demonstration of reusable rocket technology, arc also progressing.
Thus, Indian space programme implemented by ISRO has enable the pursuit of various frontier areas of space research besides facilitating the country’s overall development and technological advancement.