ISRO Lost Contact With GSAT-6A A Big Disappointment For India

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had a setback with the space agency confirming it had lost contact with GSAT-6A, a mega communication satellite that was to provide mobile communications to both civilians and the armed forces. Despite the stumbling block, the space agency will move forward with its upcoming launches although a massive quality assurance drive is likely to take place. Meanwhile, China, too, is going full steam ahead. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, plans for the country’s “space dream”, as he calls it, have been put into overdrive. The country is looking to finally catch up with the United States and Russia after years of belatedly matching their space milestones.

For India, the failure to communicate with the GSAT-6A satellite is significant; however, the space agency hasn’t given up all hope. ISRO chairman, Dr K Sivan, said efforts are currently under way to establish contact with the satellite. Scientists said a power system malfunction rendered the satellite incommunicado. The cause of this ‘failure’ is still to be determined. “We are hopeful, but as of now there is no contact with the satellite. If we are just able to speak with the satellite, we can get it back to working as there are several redundancy mechanisms including back-up power,” ISRO’s chief said.

GSLV-F08 rocket itself was on its 12th mission, and the sixth using an indigenously developed cryogenic engine. Putting the satellite into the right orbit (a geosynchronous orbit above 36,000 kilometers) was to take place subsequently in what is called an “orbit raising operation.”  The first of the three such operations took place on March 30, and the second operation was successfully conducted on March 31. But then the ISRO confirmed on April 1 that it had lost communication with the satellite, four minutes after the second orbit raising operation. Even several hours after losing the communication with the satellite, ISRO officials maintained that they may still be able to reconnect, saying that they know the “approximate location of the satellite in space by using other satellites and other resources.”

It is suspected that the loss of communications links is due to a power failure. This could have been something like a short-circuit, leading to what the experts call “‘loss of lock’ or loss of contact with the ground station.”  The Chairman of ISRO, Dr. Sivan, too, pointed to a recent similar incident in Russia, when the Russians lost links with a communication satellite that they were launching for Angola (Angosat-1).  To be sure, this is not entirely new: there had been a number of incidents in the 1980s and 1990s where Indian satellite launches have experienced power failures. Since then, however, the ISRO appeared to have fixed the problem.

Latest incident

The latest incident with the GSAT 6A suggests this might not be the case. This is not without consequence. Reports suggest that if ISRO is unable to establish communication links with GSAT 6A, it could end up floating in space as debris but fully loaded debris, with fuel for its orbit raising and for its full life cycle of 10 years. The GSAT 6A satellite, built at a cost of 2.7 billion Indian rupees ($41.5 million), was to last 10 years and was meant as a backup for the GSAT 6, which was launched three years ago.  GSAT 6A is a communication satellite meant to offer mobile communication for India with multi-band coverage facility – five beams in S-band and one in C-band.

There were high hopes placed on GSAT 6A. With a 6-meter unfurlable S-band antenna, the biggest used yet by the ISRO, GSAT 6A was supposed to offer better capacity and thereby strengthen the communication system. The satellite was also to help mobile communication throughout the country, particularly in India’s remote areas. Beyond this, the satellite was also important for the Indian military, which was hoping to enhance its own communication network. This launch itself was also important because it tested the ISRO’s modified, High Thrust Vikas booster engines, which generated about six percent more thrust than previous Vikas engines. This time, the new Vikas engines were used only in the second stage; in the future, the four first stage booster engines will also be the high thrust boosters.

Second failure

Given that this is the second major technical issue faced by the agency — a PSLV heat shield separation failure prevented indigenous backup navigation satellite IRNSS-1H from reaching the orbit in August 2017— in seven months, there is expected to be a renewed emphasis on processes. The mission to launch IRNSS-1H on board PSLV-C39 ended in failure in August last year after the satellite got stuck in the heat shield. The PSLV-C39 took the satellite to orbit but the heat shield tip or the rocket inside which the satellite is housed did not open. It was scheduled to open 3 minutes and 23 seconds into the flight of the rocket.

IRNSS-1H, the eighth in the NAVIC constellation, was to replace IRNSS-1A, the first satellite in the constellation whose rubidium atomic clocks had stopped functioning. The clocks are a critical component in providing accurate locational data. The atomic clocks in IRNSS-1A stopped due to issues in critical factors like temperature, rubidium bulb that produce light and electronic power supply. The navsat stuck in the heat shield, now declared space debris, is still roaming in the near-earth orbit and will ultimately fall on the earth.

The deeper question, beyond the one of blame and individuals, is whether the failure of the GSAT 6A will have a longer-term impact on ISRO’s credibility as a reliable satellite launcher. Considering that there do not appear to have been any problems with the launch itself, or the new high-thrust Vikas booster, the ISRO can salvage something even if they are not able to re-establish communication with the satellite. Hopefully, this will mean that the GSLV can achieve the kind of reliability that the PSLV has achieved, which has made the latter a tried and tested workhorse of the ISRO.

This failure, however, is not without its costs. The first part of this is the simple reality that the ISRO, which itself works on a shoestring budget, cannot afford failures. Beyond that, the Indian military will also now have to wait longer to upgrade its communications. But most of all, failures like these hurt the ISROs reputation as a credible space agency that can launch satellites in a cost-effective manner. That is what will worry it the most.

Upcoming project

Meanwhile, the ISRO chief has said the upcoming launches of navigation satellite IRNSS-1I and Chandrayaan-2mission will go ahead as per schedule. IRNSS-1I, likely to be launched in April, will replace the faulty first navsat IRNSS-1A, part of the Indian navigation system or NAVIC or Desi GPS. The three atomic clocks of the IRNSS-1A that were meant to provide precise location data had stopped working two years ago. Since the 2017 launch of navsat IRNSS-1H to replace the faulty satellite was unsuccessful, IRNSS-1I is, therefore, being launched to replace the first navsat. Currently, there are seven navsats in the orbit covering India and a region extending 1,500 km around it that provide real-time positioning and timing services.

Work is also on in full swing for the Chandrayaan-2 mission. Prior to the launch of the GSAT-6A satellite, the ISRO chairman, referring to the lunar mission, remarked, “Preparations for the mission are in full swing. All the required tests are going on. The right time to launch the mission comes only once in a month. Therefore, we are hoping to launch it at the right time in April.” He went on to add, “As ISRO is launching such a complicated mission involving an orbiter, lander and a rover for the first time, and we have to take extra precautions. If due to some glitch we are not able to launch in April, then we will try to launch the mission in October-November. If we launch the mission in between, we won’t get maximum benefit due to eclipses. To utilise the full lunar day (14 Earth days) for the moon exploration, the best time to launch the mission after April will be after October.”

India & China

Notwithstanding these setbacks, India and China are challenging US and Russian dominance in exploration, the commercial space sector and in the use of space for military purposes. The Modi government has been promoting the domestic space programme as a demonstration of India’s low-cost technology and reliable launches. Last February, ISRO launched 104 satellites in a single mission, most of them for foreign customers — setting a record when it launched these satellites on a single rocket, only three of which were Indian. With lower costs for launches, India can thus get ahead of competition from the US and China.

And it’s not just the lower costs, India is preferred for another reason as well. Owing to security concerns, China is often a less attractive option for private companies than India. In this backdrop, the government is ramping up the country’s space programme, which has a budget of around $4 billion, hoping it will improve the country’s prospects of winning a larger share of the more than $300 billion global space industry.  And while India’s space programme has made significant progress, the Chandrayaan-1 mission that was launched in 2008 and India’s Mar mission Mangalyaan in 2013 are particularly key milestones in India’s space history.

Lunar mission Chandrayaan-1, costing 3.86 billion rupees, was much cheaper than the spacecraft launched by Asian rival China, whose first lunar probe cost over $187 million when it launched in October 2007. Mangalyaan which is currently orbiting Mars is another feather in the cap for ISRO, making it only the fourth space agency, after those in the US, Europe and Russia, to have successfully sent a spacecraft to Mars. In 2011, a Chinese attempt to send a spacecraft named Yinghou-1 to Mars was aborted because of a technical problem. The Indian space agency then fast-tracked its Mangalyaan mission readying it in just 15 months.

While ISRO is powering on with its upcoming launches, Beijing is continuing with ambitious plans for its space programme. The country has come a long way in its race to catch up with the United States and Russia, which have lost spacecraft, astronauts and cosmonauts over the decades. China’s “taikonauts” have fared better and Beijing sees its military-run space programme as a marker of its rising global stature and growing technological might, according to a media report.

China’s defunct Tiangong 1 space station plunged back to Earth and mostly burned up on re-entry into the atmosphere over the central South Pacific, Chinese space authorities said.  Scientists monitoring the craft’s disintegrating orbit had forecast the craft would mostly burn up and would pose only the slightest of risks to people. Analysis from the Beijing Aerospace Control Center showed it had mostly burned up.  Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at Australian National University, said Tiangong 1’s re-entry was “mostly successful” and that it would have been better if the space station had not been spinning toward Earth, media reported. “It could have been better obviously, if it wasn’t tumbling, but it landed in the Southern Pacific Ocean and that’s kind of where you hope it would land,” Tucker said.

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