The Department of Space issued a press release outlining the progress that has been made in India’s space technology. Over the last three years, the Department has developed new technologies, which include, among others, highly polished optical mirrors for a solar coronographic mission, called Aditya-L1 and large, light-weight collimators with a non-cylindrical aperture for x-ray polarimetric applications (XpoSAT).
The Aditya-L1 mission was the county’s first mission to study the sun. According to the Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO), it was a 400 Kilogram (kg) satellite carrying one payload (the Visible Emission Line Coronagraph-VELC) and was placed in a halo orbit around the Lagrangian point 1 (L1), which is 1.5 million Kilometres (km) from earth. The XpoSAT was launched in 2018 and is a five-year satellite that is expected to improve working knowledge on cosmic radiation.
Also, the Department has developed indigenous silicon sensors and coatings for optical and IR spectroscopic applications as payloads on the Chandrayaan-2 mission. Chandrayaan-2, which roughly translates to “moon-vehicle”, is a part of India’s Moon Mission, through which ISRO plans to land its first lunar rover. It is aiming for an April 2019 landing. It is a follow-up mission to the Chandrayaan-1 mission that assisted in confirming the presence of “magnetic water” on the moon in 2009.
Chandrayaan-2 will launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, aboard a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) rocket. ISRO said that the new mission will consist of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. The orbiter will perform a mapping from an altitude of 100 Kilometres (km), while the lander will make a soft landing on the surface and send out the rover.
For further progress in space tech, ISRO has organised a study committee constituted to chart out a long-term program for space science exploration. It will prepare a report detailing high-priority missions to be taken up. These include follow-up missions to Mars, a new mission to Venus, and a return to Moon with the capability to return samples from extra-terrestrial sources. The Department’s release said that bilateral co-operation can maximise science returns from payloads because of complementary information from multiple sensors on the ground and in space. Hence, these are encouraged on a case-by-case basis.
There have been cooperative programs with the Canadian Space Agency and UK universities on India’s astronomy satellite, ASTROSAT. Similar cooperation programs have been established in the past on the Chandrayaan-1 mission with NASA and the European Space Agency. ISRO, through its programme called RESPOND (Sponsored Research), is encouraging academia to participate in more research and development activities. RESPOND provides support to research projects in several fields of space technology and applications to universities and institutions, the release noted.
ISRO has also set up Space Technology Cells at various institutions, including Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs) based in Bombay, Kanpur, Kharagpur, and Madras. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and the University of Pune (UoP) will collaborate on research activities. Some of the other recent initiatives for capacity building include setting up of Space Technology Incubation Centres (S-TIC) and Regional Academic Centres for Space (RAC-S).
India is on its way to becoming a crewed spacefaring nation – a title held by an elite group of countries including Russia, the U.S. and China. Through the Gaganyaan mission, India is certain that three of its vyomanauts will unfurl its national flag in space by 2022. By doing so, the country will join the elite club by becoming the world’s fourth nation to send humans to space. The mission, headed by R Hutton, is just India’s first step towards the Human Spaceflight Programme directed by Dr. V. R. Lalithambika – which might even put vyomanauts on the Moon, and beyond.
Initially the programme will see two unmanned test flights, the first in December 2020, and the second in July 2021. Following these tests will be Gaganyaan’s maiden crewed launch in December 2021, when we’ll see ISRO launching the manned spacecraft into Earth’s orbit at 400km for up to seven days, unlike the first manned spaceflight in history, Russia’s Vostok 1 – which lasted for around 100 minutes. The Gaganyaan project has been gaining momentum ever since it was accepted and announced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day address in August 2018.
The project saw green light when the Indian Union Cabinet approved the project at a cost of Rs 10,000 crores ($1.4 billion) in December 2018. A new dedicated centre responsible for the planning, engineering and training for the Gaganyaan project – the Human Space Flight Centre (HSFC), under Dr. S Unnikrishnan Nair, was inaugurated at ISRO headquarter in Bengaluru on Jan 30, 2019. The Indian Air Force was recently tasked by ISRO with the selection and training of ten candidates out of which three will climb aboard the spacecraft to their way to space.
The nation is proud of its Chandrayaan 1, the adventures of Mangalyaan in Mars’ orbit and that time when ISRO launched 104 satellites in one go for which it was long famed, but Gaganyaan is unlike any challenge the space agency has taken on before. India sending its vyomanauts to space in 2022 might not make history, seeing as Russia did it back in 1960s, followed by the space race which saw humans spacewalking and even putting footsteps on the Moon.
But this just might be the turning point in India’s future as a spacefaring nation. It won’t take long before vyomanauts make their way to the International Space Station. The Gaganyaan mission will put ISRO on its way to be in line with SpaceX and Boeing, which aim to give back the U.S. its ability to send Americans to space through the Commercial Crew Program. If space mining becomes a thing in the future, the spacefaring nations will surely have the advantage over others.
With the remarkably low cost Moon and Mars missions, ISRO showed the world that space exploration is possible for anyone. The Mangalyaan reached Mars orbit at a cost of $78 million, while the sci-fi Hollywood movie – Interstellar, cost $165 million. Some might ask why India is sending humans to space instead of trying to lift more of its citizens out of poverty. Elon Musk just might have a good answer for those.
There are exciting times ahead for India and human spaceflight. If the launch goes as planned, it will ignite the passion for space exploration for more people in India and worldwide and inspire them to learn more about the Universe. With the fast-growing space industry set to reach $1 trillion by 2040, advancements in the space sector is a necessity, more than an aspiration. Technological developments in space exploration will create new jobs in the field and help with the economic development of the country. Nevertheless, sending humans to space and bringing them back to Earth safely is no easy feat – even if it’s been done a thousand times before, by top space agencies. A rocket launch is one long controlled explosion after all. Things could always go wrong, no matter how experienced you are. That’s the beauty of it.