Space flights, nuclear power and a missile shield

India’s achievements in space, marked by missions to the moon and Mars; its nuclear power programme; and the range of missiles in its armoury were made possible by the visionary zeal of scientists such as Vikram Sarabhai and Homi J. Bhabha and the commitment of the political leadership to building a scientific temper.

Published : Aug 17, 2017 16:00 IST

Vikram Sarabhai (fourth from right) and ISRO scientists discussing the launch of the sounding rocket Rohini-75 from Thumba in the 1960s. Sounding rockets are launched to probe atmospheric layers.

Vikram Sarabhai (fourth from right) and ISRO scientists discussing the launch of the sounding rocket Rohini-75 from Thumba in the 1960s. Sounding rockets are launched to probe atmospheric layers.


IF India is one of the top players in the world in space, nuclear power and missiles despite embargoes and technology-denial regimes heaped on it, a large share of the credit should go to the founding fathers of these programmes, Vikram Sarabhai, Homi J. Bhabha and Air Vice Marshal V.S. Narayanan respectively. Those who came after them built on this foundation to make the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) institutions that earned the respect of the world.

Success upon success has visited ISRO in the past several years. It successfully put into orbit its spacecraft around Mars in its first attempt on September 24, 2014. The spacecraft completed 1,000 earth days in its orbit on June 19, 2017, well beyond its designated mission life of six months. Its mission to the moon, Chandrayaan-1, was the first to discover the presence of water molecules on the lunar surface soil and rocks.

On June 5, 2017, ISRO’s first developmental flight of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-MkIII D1), its heaviest vehicle yet at 640-tonne, successfully put a satellite, GSAT-19, weighing 3,136 kg into orbit, the heaviest to be put into orbit from India. Each of the launch vehicle’s three stages, including its indigenous cryogenic stage, is the heaviest ISRO has built so far.

This came on top of the four straight successful launches of the GSLV-MkII with an indigenous cryogenic engine and 39 successful flights in a row of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) since 1994, with the 38th launch, on February 15, putting a world record number of 104 satellites into orbit. In fact, the PSLVs have put into orbit 209 satellites from abroad, earning big money for Antrix, the commercial wing of the Department of Space.

Today ISRO has the capability to build any type of launch vehicle and any type of satellite that it can launch into any type of orbit. “We have achieved real self-reliance in all areas of launch vehicle technology,” says K. Sivan, Director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram.

As for satellites, the ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC) in Bengaluru has built a whole range of satellites, for communication, remote-sensing, prediction of weather, navigation, cartography, surveillance, ocean studies and education, besides science satellites Chandrayaan-1, Mars Orbiter and Astrosat. Also on its list is an orbiter to Venus, which will have a balloon experiment to study Venus’ atmosphere. Beginning with Aryabhata in 1975, ISAC has so far rolled out 96 satellites.

ISRO’s sights are now set on the totally indigenous Chandrayaan-2 mission, which will involve getting a lander carrying a rover to softland on the lunar surface. The orbiter, the lander and the rover will together weigh 3,250 kg. M. Annadurai, Director, ISAC, said ISRO was aiming for a launch in the first quarter of 2018.

Aryabhata and the two earth observation satellites that followed, Bhaskara-1 and Bhaskara-2 were launched by Russian rockets, and they were followed by APPLE (Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment), India’s first experimental communication satellite, launched by the Ariane rocket of the European Space Agency (ESA) from French Guiana. After Professor U.R. Rao became its Chairman in 1984, ISRO came into its own, building full-fledged remote-sensing satellites that are used in agriculture, fishing, and mapping of urban and rural areas.

Using information provided by India’s satellites in low-earth and geostationary orbits, information about the weather over the Indian subcontinent is provided to the India Meteorological Department (IMD) every 15 minutes now. This information is augmented by images coming from Oceansat-2 and SCATSAT-1. In fact, data from SCATSAT-1, which was put into orbit by PSLV-C35 on September 26, 2016, was used to monitor the flood situation in Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal in July 2017.

ISRO also has in orbit a constellation of seven navigation satellites, which, according to Annadurai, “are among the fastest realised systems [in the world]”.

A key focus area of ISRO is building reusable launch vehicles (RLVs). In fact, the RLV programme crossed a milestone on May 23, 2016, with the launch and return of a winged RLV-TD in a scaled configuration that flew at a hypersonic speed. On August 28, 2016, ISRO took the next steps towards reducing the cost of access to space when a modified two-stage vehicle developed by the VSSC used air-breathing propulsion in its scramjet engine.

In five decades, ISRO’s has been a remarkable journey in space, which began in the 1960s with the launch of a ‘pencil-rocket’ that reached a height of a few kilometres with a couple of kilograms of propellants.

Nuclear power The need for total self-sufficiency is what guides India’s three-stage nuclear power programme too. The DAE has achieved this while building Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), which forms the first stage, and is all set to usher in the second stage when the 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, goes critical in December 2017. The PFBR, says Kallol Roy, CMD of Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Limited (BHAVINI), is meant to be a techno-economic demonstration of large fast reactors to be built in series. It will be a big jump from the 13 MWe Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam. BHAVINI, the DAE’s public sector undertaking responsible for building breeder reactors, plans to build four more breeder reactors, including two at Kalpakkam. Once the PFBR becomes operational and delivers 500 MWe power to the grid, says Kallol Roy, it will “serve as a stepping stone towards long-term energy security for the country”.

Questions have been asked about why India is pressing ahead with breeders when advanced countries have given them a wide berth. But the French nuclear scientist George Vendryes has gone on record that India is on “the right path” and that he “admired India” for what it is doing ( Frontline , August 25, 2006).

While the PHWRs use natural uranium as fuel and heavy water as both coolant and moderator, the fast breeder reactors use plutonium-uranium mixed oxide as fuel. In the third stage, reactors using thorium as fuel will be built. The three stages are interlinked.

Today, India has 22 reactors with an installed capacity of 6,780 MWe. Of these, 18 are PHWRs. Four, two each at Tarapur and Kudankulam, are Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs) that use enriched uranium as fuel and light water as coolant. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), DAE’s flagship PSU, is building four indigenous 700 MWe PHWRs—two each at Rawatbhatta in Rajasthan and Kakrapar in Gujarat—and they are in an advanced stage of construction.

On May 17, 2017, the Union Cabinet approved the construction of 10 more 700 MWe PHWRs. They are to come up at Gorakhpur in Haryana, Chutka in Madhya Pradesh, Kaiga in Karnataka, and Mahi Banswara in Rajasthan. “If the NPCIL was earlier building reactors in pairs, it will build the 10 new units in a fleet mode as a fully home-grown initiative,” says N. Nagaich, Director (HR), NPCIL. The 10 reactors are expected to generate manufacturing orders worth Rs.70,000 crore to Indian industry that can generate around 34,000 jobs in direct and indirect employment.

The two Russian PWR reactors of 1000 MWe each at Kudankulam are already generating electricity and construction work has begun on two more such reactors on June 29.

Having mastered the PHWR technology and all set to herald the breeder reactors’ era, the DAE has set its sights on building 900 MWe PWRs, which will use enriched uranium as fuel. The DAE gained enormous experience in this area when it developed the 80MWt PWR which powers India’s nuclear-powered submarine Arihant.

The 63-year old DAE is an empire that has 64 organisations under its belt, including PSUs, research centres, academic institutions and industrial organisations that are involved in the entire gamut of activities relating to nuclear electricity generation.

The nerve-centre of the DAE is the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Trombay, Mumbai. It is perhaps the largest R & D facility in the world where the widest spectrum of activities in nuclear science and technology and many other areas are carried out. It has done remarkable work in radiation medicine, nuclear agriculture, irradiation of mangoes, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and spices to prevent their decay and sprouting, radio astronomy, lasers, accelerators, fusion, cryogenics, plasma and so on. Its scientists specialise in supercomputers, robotics, artificial intelligence, superconductivity and virtual reality.

K.N. Vyas, Director, BARC, calls it “a technology powerhouse” that has blended multi-disciplinary skills in basic sciences and engineering disciplines to address the technological challenges of atomic energy. Dhruva, a high-flux reactor at BARC, Trombay; notable capability in synthetic organic chemistry; and expertise in radiochemical processing have been instrumental in developing novel radiopharmaceuticals. After undergoing quality checks and trials in collaboration with Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai, they have been released for cancer treatment, says Vyas. Radiopharmaceuticals have also been produced by a medical cyclotron available with BARC.

BARC’s contribution to cancer treatment includes the Bhabhatron, a cobalt teletherapy machine, whose capability has been enhanced to ensure that the radiation dose is delivered precisely to the tumour. It has also developed tiny iodine125-based brachytherapy sources, encased in thin titanium shells, for treating eye cancers.

Vyas says BARC has developed a sewage sludge hygienisation technology, wherein high energy gamma radiation from cobalt 60 source inactivates pathogens, kills weeds, degrades chemical contaminants and enables inoculation with useful bio-nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium bacteria, converting the waste sludge into manure. A dry sludge hygienisation plant, with a capacity of 100 tonnes a day, is being built for Ahmedabad municipal corporation.

Through genetic enhancement, BARC has developed and released, in collaboration with agriculture universities, more than 40 different crop varieties, among them groundnut, urad bean, channa, moong, black gram, pigeon pea, rice, mustard, jute and soya bean, that are high-yielding varieties and resistant to diseases and drought. A semi-dwarf aromatic mutant of Dubraj rice called Trombay Chattisgarh Dubraj Mutant-1, with an improved yield of 35 per cent and 15 days less of maturity period, will soon be released in collaboration with the Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya, Raipur.

BARC has also developed a supercomputer called Anupam Agnaya with a capacity of 270 terraflops, spectroscopes for ISRO’s missions to the Moon (Chandrayaan-1) and Mars, and lightweight bullet-proof jackets for armed forces’ personnel.

DRDO In the field of defence research India has a massive empire in the form of the DRDO whose range of activities is staggering. Set up with 10 laboratories on January 1, 1958, it now boasts more than 52 big laboratories situated in different parts of the country. These laboratories can be categorised into seven clusters: aeronautics, missiles and strategic systems, electronics, computational systems, armaments and naval systems, strategic systems, and materials and life sciences. They develop everything that the armed forces need: missiles, main battle tanks, combat aircraft, infantry combat vehicles, bridge-laying tanks, underwater vehicles, radars, sonars, smart materials, stealth technologies, high explosives, torpedoes, parachutes, aerostats, lasers, nano-tubes, robots, desalination plants, assault rifles and so on.

Other products they have developed include foldable stretchers, self-heating socks and gloves for soldiers posted in the rarefied heights of Siachen, underground shelters for use in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, ready-to-eat chapatis, nutritional bars, protein-rich food and so on.

However, it is the portfolio of missiles DRDO has developed at its missile complex in Hyderabad that makes India proud. The complex has three facilities: Defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL), and the Research Centre, Imarat (RCI). In the portfolio are surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles (SAM), air-to-ground, air-to-air, anti-tank, underwater-launched and supersonic cruise missiles.

In the future, says G. Satheesh Reddy, Director-General (Missiles and Strategic Systems), DRDO, the thrust will be on high-energy propellants, high temperature materials and coatings, sensors and detectors, radomes and material technologies, and highly miniaturised, low-cost and accurate integrated avionics. DRDO will be looking to “establish focussed research centres in specific technologies in R and D centres and academic institutions” to achieve these objectives.

Among the missiles in India’s arsenal, the interceptors form the building blocks of its ballistic missile defence (BMD) shield. They can intercept an enemy missile in the exo-atmosphere (above an altitude of 80 km) or the endo-atmosphere (at an altitude of 15 km to 35 km) and pulverise them either in a “hit-to-kill”, which is a head-on collision, or in a “proximity kill”. The interceptor missions launched from Abdul Kalam Island (formerly Wheeler Island) off the Odisha coast have been spectacular successes, with most of them scoring direct hits on incoming “enemy” missiles simulating the trajectory of ballistic missiles with a range of about 2,000 km.

The exo-atmospheric interceptor is a completely indigenously developed missile with critical technologies such as infra-red seeker, and control and guidance and propulsion systems developed in-house and supported by Indian industry through an ecosystem that DRDO nurtured. The endo-atmospheric interceptor missile features a radio-frequency seeker and an advanced dynamic control system.

The BMD, in the first phase, has been conceived to take care of enemy missiles coming from a distance of 2,000 km. In the second phase it will take care of missiles with a range of 5,000 km. Its critical elements, dispersed across the country, include interceptor missiles, command, control, communication, computer and intelligence (C4I) systems, long-range radars and so on. Only the United States, Russia and Israel have BMD shields.

India’s fleet of surface-to-surface missiles is helmed by the Agni series, Agni-I, II, III, IV and V, which are all strategic missiles armed with nuclear warheads and the bulwark of India’s nuclear deterrence. The single-stage Agni-I has a range of about 750 km and the two-stage, 17-tonne Agni-II has a range of 2,000 km. Agni-III, weighing 50 tonnes, is a quantum jump and it can take out targets 3,000 km away. Agni-IV, with its motor casings made of composites, weighs only 17 tonnes and it can reach targets 4,000 km away. Agni-V, with a range of 5,000 km, is a “game changer”, says Avinash Chander, former Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and former DRDO Director General. The Army has deployed Agni-I, II, III and IV. Four consecutive flights of Agni-V have been successful, with the third and fourth launches taking place from canisters positioned on trucks.

The BMD and the strategic Agni series establish India as a formidable missile power in the world, says a DRDO missile technologist who did not want to be named.

In the SAM class, a success story is the development of the Akash missile. The Army and the Air Force possess it and both have placed production orders of more than Rs.20,000 crore for Akash, which can hit aircraft and helicopters flying 25 km away. “The maturity of private manufacturing agencies in key defence applications is highlighted by the fact that about 85 per cent of the Akash missile systems is supplied by them,” says Satheesh Reddy.

In 2016, DRDO began two new projects of Akash. The first one called Akash New Generation will feature solid propulsion, an electro-mechanical control system, an active radio-frequency seeker and a laser proximity fuse. The system can search, track and fire while engaging 10 targets that fly up to an altitude of 25 km. Akash New Generation has not been tested yet. The second, Akash-Mark 1S, will be tested in the technology demonstrator mode to upgrade the earlier version with an RF seeker.

A new indigenously developed Quick Reaction SAM (QRSAM) has been tested this year. It can search for targets on the move, track them on the move and fire at multiple targets that are flying 30 km away. According to DRDO sources, two advanced SAMs, one each for the Navy and the Air Force, will become operational soon. The Long Range SAMs (LRSAMS), with a range of 70 km, has been developed jointly by DRDO and the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for the Indian Navy. The three destroyers of the Navy will soon boast of LRSAMs, the flight trials of which were conducted in September 2016 and were aimed at proving three interception scenarios against manoeuvring targets. A medium-range SAM has been developed jointly by DRDO and the IAI for the Air Force, and the flight trials took place in June and July 2016.

Astra, the air-to-air missile, with a capability to destroy aircraft flying in a range of up to 60 km, has been inducted into the Air Force on the Sukhoi-30. This indigenous missile, with variants for extended range, will provide the Air Force the fire power to engage targets at various standoffs.

India’s underwater-launched K-15 missile has a range of 700 km, and flight trials of another underwater-launched missile, the K-4, with a range of 3,000 km, have taken place from submerged pontoons.

In the development of missiles, RCI, an avionics laboratory with a mandate to design and develop advanced avionics technologies, plays an important role. It has developed “systems and sub-systems in the critical areas of navigation, control actuation systems, power supplies, imaging seekers, RF seekers, onboard computers, radomes and antennae, and so on,” says Satheesh Reddy, who was formerly Director, RCI.

Indeed, with such an array of sophisticated laboratories, defence-related research looks set to conquer new frontiers that will help DRDO grow and expand its empire.

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