Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

The new launch pad. At right is the vehicle assembly building and at left is the launch tower surrounded by four lightning arresters. - COURTESY: SATISH DHAWAN SPACE CENTRE, SRIHARIKOTA

The new launch pad. At right is the vehicle assembly building and at left is the launch tower surrounded by four lightning arresters. - COURTESY: SATISH DHAWAN SPACE CENTRE, SRIHARIKOTA

With its expertise in building and launching satellites and space vehicles and with an applications-oriented approach, ISRO is all set to take India's space programme to great heights.

THE Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has well and truly launched itself into the 21st century, fired by the motto "sustained self-reliance in space". A definitive indication of this is a world-class "universal" launch pad built at a cost of Rs.400 crores, the second one at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. The spindle-shaped, 165 sq km island in the Bay of Bengal, about 100 km from Chennai, throbs with activity. The Mission Control Centre has been expanded, facilities for storing rocket fuel are being enhanced, pipelines have been laid and mock-up trials are under way at the second launch pad.

On the 1,000-acre (400-hectare) campus of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) at Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram, there is an air of openness. Rocket engineers readily discuss ISRO's moon mission, the satellite that will be recovered from space, the GSLV Mark III or the Indian version of the space shuttle. On their desks and walls are gleaming models and colour posters of these missions.

At the ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC) in Bangalore, too, the mood is upbeat. Spacecraft engineers are busy building the satellites that will take India to the self-reliance goal: RESOURCESAT, EDUSAT, OCEANSATs, RISAT and CARTOSATs. The ISAC-built INSAT-3E has been airlifted to Kourou in French Guiana, where an Ariane-5 vehicle will put it into orbit in August.

Commissioned in 1983, INSATs, comprising six spacecraft, form the largest communication satellite system in the Asia-Pacific region. Indigenisation began with the INSAT-2 series. "We wanted to use INSAT-2A as a test spacecraft, but it performed so well that we made it into an operational satellite," said A. Bhaskaranarayana, Director, SATCOM Programmes and Programme Director, INSAT System, ISRO.

"We are focussing well," said G. Madhavan Nair, Director, VSSC. ISRO's was a "mission-oriented approach", which was born out of the "total vision of Vikram Sarabhai" to apply space technology for the benefit of the common man. ISRO implemented a space programme to raise the standard of living of the people through newer applications such as telemedicine, tele-education and e-governance. "It is a holistic approach," said Madhavan Nair.

Central to this approach are ISRO's satellites and launch vehicles. Said Dr. P.S. Goel, Director, ISAC, and an acknowledged expert in building satellites: "In building satellites, we have been able to achieve world leadership. The whole world looks at ISRO now for meeting its requirements." The Indian Remote sensing Satellites (IRS) are among the best in the world, on a par with the French SPOT and the United States' LANDSAT.

ISRO will soon possess RISAT (Radar Imaging Satellite) with its microwave imaging capability, which can see through rain clouds day and night and provide imagery and information on soil moisture, water availability and so on even during the monsoon season. Mapping of the landmass is expected to get more precise once CARTOSAT-1 with its high-resolution cameras goes up probably by the end of next year. Said Dr. Goel: "The CARTOSAT is a unique mission in the world. It will provide us with a capability that no one else has in the world today."

Thirty-seven Indian satellites have been deployed so far. Seventeen of these were put into orbit by ISRO's SLV-3s, the Augmented SLVs (ASLV), the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLVs) and the Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLVs) from SHAR. The Tenth Plan period, from 2002 to 2007, began on a positive note for ISRO. In September 2002 the PSLV sent into orbit a meteorological satellite KALPANA-1, and in May 2003 the GSLV deployed the communications satellite GSAT. A PSLV carrying RESOURCESAT will blast off in October. There will be 15 launches from SHAR during the period, averaging three lift-offs a year. And a good number of these will be from the second launch pad, which will be commissioned in about six months. A PSLV carrying CARTOSAT-1 will soar from the second launch pad by April 2004.

Antrix Corporation Limited, the commercial wing of the Department of Space, is scouring the world market for users for its PSLVs, GSLVs, IRSs and GSATs. On May 26, 1999, the PSLV put into orbit two small satellites, TUBSAT of Germany and KITSAT-3 of the Republic of Korea. It launched two more, BIRD of Germany and PROBA of Belgium, on October 22, 2001. Under an agreement signed by Antrix and the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, a PSLV will deploy the NTU's X-SAT, a 100-kg remote sensing satellite, in 2005-06.

Antrix is also seeking to exploit the GSLV to launch 2,000-kg satellites in the geo-synchronous transfer orbit (GTO). There is a demand to launch two or three satellites of this weight every year, and this demand may last for another eight years. "We would like to see whether we can have a share in this market. It is encouraging that the GSLV is a good success," said K.R. Sridhara Murthi, Executive Director of Antrix Corporation.

With six straight successes, the PSLV's reliability and versatility have drawn customers. Another attractive area is its ability to launch 1,500-kg satellites in the polar sun-synchronous orbit and 1,000-kg spacecraft in the GTO. "We are trying to get in touch with potential satellite builders all over the world for that class of launches," said Sridhara Murthi.

Meanwhile, ISRO plans to build more launch vehicles and satellites. It is planning a lunar mission in 2007-2008 (box on page 114). Around the same time it also hopes to send up the technology demonstrator of a reusable launch vehicle, India's version of the space shuttle (box on page 108). But right now the focus is on getting the GSLV Mark III, which can inject a four-tonne satellite in the GTO, ready for a 2008 launch (box on page 116). It will have an indigenous cryogenic stage built by the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC) at Mahendragiri in Tamil Nadu (story on page 117).

NOVEMBER 21, 1963, is a red-letter day in the history of India's space programme. On that day the first rocket from India was launched - a U.S. Nike-Apache sounding rocket lifted off from Thumba. It was also the day on which the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) became operational. The rocket was assembled in the nearby St. Mary Magdalene Church, which had been acquired earlier for building the TERLS. The Bishop's House, a short distance away, was the Mission Control Centre. There has been no looking back since.

The first India-made rocket lifted off from Thumba in 1969. The 10-kg "pencil-rocket" had propellants made in India and it was assembled in the church building, which is now a museum of space memorabilia. But it was the VSSC-built SLV-3 that lifted India into the exclusive club of space-faring nations, on July 18, 1980, when it put into orbit the 35-kg Rohini satellite. The United States, Russia (the Soviet Union), the United Kingdom, France, Japan and China were the other members.

India's space research was born on the VSSC campus. It has groups of specialists doing research in every field of rocketry including aerospace, aerodynamics, propulsion, avionics, thermal control, structures, and propellants. The aerospace group plays a key role in building launch vehicles.

R.A.D. Pillai, Group Director, Programme Planning and Evaluation, VSSC, attributed the successful development of complex technologies for the PSLVs and the GSLVs to good leadership, project management, and technology management expertise developed over 30 years. The VSSC, which has nine technical entities comprising several groups and divisions, is now executing seven operational, developmental and advanced technology projects, according to Pillai.

One such project that the VSSC developed was the automatic launch sequence (ALS) technology at its Mechanical and Vehicle Integration Testing Entity at Valiamala, 25 km from Thiruvananthapuram. The very first flight of the SLV-3 used this facility, which is actually a sophisticated computer that takes over the operations of the vehicle several minutes before lift-off. "The French could not believe that we had the ALS in 1979 itself," said John P. Zachariah, Deputy Director, VSSC (MVIT Entity).

The SLV-3 success was followed by the failure of two ASLV flights. Many technologies such as strap-on boosters, digital autopilot, closed-loop guidance and a bulbous heat shield had been introduced in it, making it a complex vehicle. "Besides, the ASLV had to perform 10 to 15 critical operations, such as the first stage control switching itself off, the second stage taking over, the strap-on jettisoning, thrust fall and so on, in four to five seconds. And all these when the vehicle travelled through the dense atmosphere where turbulence occurred," said Dr. B.N. Suresh, Associate Director (R&D), VSSC. "This was like a runner changing the baton in a relay race. Races are often won or lost during the baton change." The next two ASLV flights were a success.

ISRO's thrust now is "cheaper access to space". A launch by ISRO costs only 70 to 80 per cent of what it costs to launch a satellite anywhere else in the world. ISRO is trying to bring it down to half the present international cost. The ballpark figure of current international cost of launching a satellite with an expendable vehicle is around $30,000 for a kilo of payload. ISRO is aiming at $15,000 a kilo.

Helping it achieve this figure are the more than 400 industries associated with India's space programme. Nearly 35 per cent of ISRO's budget is spent through the industries that supply hardware and software for launch vehicles and satellites and build facilities such as the second launch pad or the second Master Control Facility in Bhopal.

"We have the capability to launch three or four vehicles a year, two PSLVs and one GSLV. We have established an industrial base and vehicles can be continuously produced," said D. Narayana Moorthi, Director, Launch Vehicle Programme Office. Vehicles will be available on demand because of industrial production, he added.

"We have come of age. But our focus has not changed," said V. Sundararamaiah, Scientific Secretary, ISRO. "It has become sharper and more aggressive." And more down-to-earth in the application of space technology.

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