New chairman AS Kiran Kumar and PM Narendra Modi's focus on science to catapult ISRO into its next growth orbit.
AS Kiran Kumar, the new chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), has spent all his working life at the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad. For decades this laboratory performed away from public view, quietly developing instruments and technologies for India's satellites. Kumar kept a similarly low profile, although he was involved in several key missions. Now both Kumar and his lab are moving to the centre stage, and not just by virtue of him becoming the chairman.
Within ISRO, Kumar has been known to be a quiet but tenacious engineer, with a deep technical understanding of satellites and their applications. Over the past few decades, he had been closely involved in developing several satellite applications. He had worked on the development of payloads of satellite missions right from Bhaskara in 1979 to the Mars Orbiter Mission last year.
Kumar had closely monitored the journey of the orbiter from the earth to Mars, taking crucial technical decisions till the last minute. Now, as the chairman of ISRO, he has a pre-eminent task: expand the applications of space technology along with the technology itself.
In the past few months, PM Modi has been pushing for increased applications of science and technology in the country, and space technology in particular. As the applications increase, the unstated goal is to expand the space programme itself, from building satellites to launch vehicles and specific missions beyond the earth. At some point, it would also mean expanding the domestic manufacturing base, mainly in the private industry, and the commercial ambitions of ISRO through its business arm Antrix. Says Kumar: "As many as 18 teams are working in ISRO with the ministries to find new applications for space technology."
These teams, along with the ministries, will soon come up with a plan to increase the utilisation of space technology in all ministries. Meanwhile, ISRO has its own full calendar with new projects, some of them expanding the potential use of space technology significantly. It also involves new heavy launch vehicles, cryogenic and semi-cryogenic engines, a moon and a solar mission and, if there is enough government support, human space missions as well. Also going on under the radar are programmes like air breathing and reusable launch vehicles. It is a formidable turnaround for an organisation that was, just two years ago, still not had a fully successful geostationary launch vehicle.
In March, ISRO will have the first flight of this year: a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) will put in orbit IRNSS 1-D, the fourth navigation satellite that is part of a constellation of seven satellites supposed to provide indigenous capability in this strategic area.
Later this year, it will put the country's first astronomy satellite (Astrosat) in orbit, providing a broad spectrum of instruments for the astronomy community. In between, PSLV will also have a commercial launch, and the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark II go up one more time, putting GSAT-6 into orbit. After that, all eyes will be on GSLV Mark III and the indigenous cryogenic engine.
The GSLV Mark III has already had a sub-orbital flight last year. On December 18, it lifted off with a dummy cryogenic upper stage and a crew module as a payload. The crew module was ejected at an altitude of 126 km, after which it descended through the atmosphere and landed in the Indian Ocean safely.
The next flight of GSLV Mark III, currently scheduled for December 2016, is to go the full distance and put a four-tonne satellite into geostationary orbit. The first two stages of the vehicle are ready, but the upper stage has to wait for the cryogenic stage that is now being developed at the Liquid Propulsions Systems Centre near Thiruvananthapuram.
There is a marked difference between the two versions of GSLVs. Its Mark II version could put only a 2.5-tonne satellite into geostationary orbit while Mark III can lift four-tonne satellites. The rockets differ in their design too. Mark II has three stages: a solid first with four liquid strap-ons, a liquid second stage, and a cryogenic third. Mark III has two stages, supplemented with two powerful solid motors.
GSLV Mark I, now retired, flew with Russian cryogenic engines. GSLV Mark II had indigenous cryogenic engines, but they were re-engineered from the Russian design. GSLV Mark III has larger and completely indigenous cryogenic engines in the upper stage. "It is a completely new vehicle," says S Somanath, project director of GSLV Mark III.
The Russian cryogenic engines were small and hence not very powerful: in technical parlance, they had a thrust of eight to nine tonnes. This was all right for a small vehicle, but not for a heavy lifter like GSLV Mark III. To put a four-tonne satellite into orbit, the cryogenic engine has to be nearly twice as powerful. The new engine being developed will have a thrust of nearly 20 tonnes, which will be enough to put a large satellite into orbit when combined with powerful lower stages.
The new engine will bring with it some advantages and disadvantages as well. The Russian engines used what is called the staged combustion cycle; burn a bit of the fuel in a pre-burner, and then bring the hot gas into the main chamber to complete the combustion. This results in a highly efficient engine but complicated plumbing and control systems. It also makes the engine components difficult to test separately. The engine under development uses a gas generator cycle, where some fuel is burned and then used to operate the pumps. Since the hot gases in the pre-burner are not injected into the main combustion chamber, the efficiency of the engine goes down marginally but the engine becomes simple and light.
The gas-generator engine is also loosely coupled, which means the parts can be developed and tested independently before being assembled and tested again as a whole. "All the subsystem tests of the engine are done," says K Sivan, LPSC director. "Two levels of integration are also over, and real engine tests are going on now." ISRO needs to test three engines over two years and prepare the upper stage to go in the flight. GSLV Mark III development involved the creation of substantial facilities with an investment of at least `1,000 crore. Along the way, ISRO has also designed a vehicle that can do more than just put satellites into orbit.
"It is a future human-rated vehicle," says Somanath. Actual use in a human flight will require additional tests. To begin with, the vehicle has fewer stages than its predecessor, thereby making it simpler. The control algorithms of GSLV Mark III are different, and it has new electrical controls as well that work in tandem. The rocket has the ability to detect failures and isolate them as well, an important requirement for human-rated vehicles. The actuator — a motor — has multiple power sources, and only two are required for them to work. Sensors have triple redundancy. The vehicle commands have some redundancy too. Each vehicle unit has a destruction system. And so on.
Meanwhile, ISRO has started forming concepts to develop a rocket that can put a 10-tonne satellite into orbit. This vehicle would require powerful engines. One candidate is the semi-cryogenic engine, using kerosene and liquid oxygen, whose design is now over. The hardware is being built and facilities being created. When ready, it will be an efficient lower stage with a thrust of 200 tonnes and controllable in flight, good enough to go into the lower stages of a large rocket. ISRO's plans are to use it in the heavy lifter and the reusable launch vehicle.
While future engines and launch vehicles get ready, its old workhorse PSLV will launch a series of novel satellites in orbit. The next PSLV flight — in March — will put the fourth satellite of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) into orbit. Three more such satellites are to follow IRNSS 1D, thus completing a network with considerable strategic value to the country. PSLV will have a commercial launch too this year, with foreign satellites, and another one to put the Astrosat into orbit roughly over the equator. This satellite will orbit at an altitude of 650 km for five years, thereby augmenting domestic space engineering capability for scientific research.
Astrosat, has been in the works for over a decade. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) developed three of its five payloads, some of which were quite complicated to build. One instrument, the soft X-ray telescope, took 11 years to build. TIFR has now completed building all the instruments and handed them over to ISRO, which has begun the integration at Bangalore. It will be the world's only multiwave astronomy satellite, another one from NASA having ended its life some time ago.
Astrosat has multiple imaging methods: ultraviolet, soft X-ray and hard X-rays. "It is a general purpose satellite that can be used for many different studies," says KP Singh, professor at TIFR, who was closely involved in its development. Astronomers like Singh will use it for a variety of research. It will look at black holes in the galaxy and beyond. It can look at clusters of galaxies not discovered so far. It can look at stars and exclude those that cannot have planets with life. Astronomers can propose an experiment that will be examined by a team; data from the experiment will be open after about 18 months.
All the five payloads of the Astrosat are now in the clean room and are being assembled. The full satellite will be ready in one month, and tested for another three months. It will be ready for launch by July, and could go up by August. "Everybody in ISRO and the astronomy community is looking forward to the Astrosat," says SK Shivkumar, director of ISRO Satellite Centre in Bengaluru. It will involve expansion of space applications for ISRO.
So will be the next lunar mission, for which ISRO is developing a rover, a lander and an orbiter. Unlike the previous mission, Chandrayaan-2 cannot be launched by the PSLV. This is because it has a payload supposed to be 2.25 tonne, well outside the capabilities of PSLV-XL. Chandrayaan-1 had a weight of 1.3 tonne. GSLV is supposed to have a few more flights before Chandrayaan-2, and would probably be looked at as a reliable vehicle.
Chandrayaan-2 was planned as a joint project between India and Russia, with Russia developing the moon lander, but the Russians withdrew citing technical reasons. ISRO then decided to develop the rover on its own. The spacecraft is being designed and a six-wheeled rover has been designed already. "It has shaped well," says Shivkumar. ISRO has had a review recently. The launch is expected to happen sometime in July 2018.
After that, apart from building routine satellites, ISRO has another major mission in mind: Aditya 1, or a satellite to look at the sun. This is to be located in between the earth and the sun, at a point called Lagrangian Point, where it is supposed to remain for all of its life. There are technical issues, not th least of which is the stability of the satellite at the Lagrangian Point. Understanding how the satellite will behave there is a tough problem. Considering the current ambitions of ISRO, even tougher problems would follow in future.
ISRO has its hands full with new projects, some of which pushing up the potential use of space technology significantly. These include new heavy launch vehicles, cryogenic and semi-cryogenic engines, a moon and a solar mission and, if there is enough government support, human space missions as well. Plus, you have air-breathing and reusable launch vehicles. And the turnaround seems to be complete. Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System
A set of seven navigation satellites that will be controlled by the government. The PSLV has been launching three of them through last year, and four more need to be launched in the first half of this year for the constellation to be complete. It will give India a full network of global positioning satellites for both civilian and military use. New chairman AS Kiran Kumar and PM Narendra Modi's focus on science to catapult ISRO into its next growth orbit Astrosat
To be launched later this year, the Astrosat will satisfy a long-standing need among India's astronomy community. The onboard equipment has mostly been built at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) with ISRO chipping in with some parts. It is a general purpose astronomy satellite capable of investigating a wide range of astronomical phenomena. New chairman AS Kiran Kumar and PM Narendra Modi's focus on science to catapult ISRO into its next growth orbit GSLV Mark III
One of ISRO's most challenging tasks is to develop a vehicle capable of launching 4-tonne satellites into geostationary orbit. The current GSLV can go up to 2.2 tonnes. GSLV Mark III, which has completed one flight with a dummy upper stage, has to wait for another two years for the full cryogenic stage to be developed. It is also to be developed as a human-rated vehicle later. New chairman AS Kiran Kumar and PM Narendra Modi's focus on science to catapult ISRO into its next growth orbit Indigenous cryogenic engines
India had built its own cryogenic engine based on a Russian design, but neither the Indian nor the Russian engines have enough thrust to put a 4-tonne satellite into orbit. The completely indigenous cryogenic engine, now under development, will have three times the thrust and can put 4 tonnes satellites into orbit. It is being tested, and complete delivery will take 2 more years. New chairman AS Kiran Kumar and PM Narendra Modi's focus on science to catapult ISRO into its next growth orbit Chandrayaan II
After the success of the moon orbiter (Chandrayaan I), ISRO is now developing a moon rover (Chandrayaan II). It has two parts; the rover and the orbiter. The rover will land softly and explore lunar soil, while the orbiter will take this data and relay it to the earth. Chandrayan II is not likely to have payloads from other countries. The launch time will be some time around two years from now. What was accomplished in the past three years:
First fully successful GSLV flown in January 2014
First successful flight test of indigenous cryogenic engine, also in Jan 2014
Mars mission conceived and executed to perfection, from Nov 2013 to Sept 2014
Successful sub-orbital flight of GSLV Mark III, along with the safe recovery of crew module
Kiran Kumar What is expected in the next three years :
Completion of navigation satellite system launches this year
Development and launch of Astrosat, a unique general purpose astronomy satellite, also this year
Development of new and indigenous cryogenic engine, by next year-end Antrix Corporation: A Sharp Shooter
At first sight, Antrix Corporation hardly looks like an entity with a business in excess of Rs 1,000 crore. It has a small office, a smaller set of staff and a bunch of contracts that could keep a larger company busy round the clock. It had revenues of Rs 1,608 crore last year, and its aim is to increase it three times in the next five years. All it needs to achieve this aim is to make a few adjustments in its operation.
And yet it is wrong to look at Antrix through the lens of a private enterprise. Its aim is not to build a profitable and full-fledged business but to market ISRO's spare capacity. New chairman AS Kiran Kumar and PM Narendra Modi's focus on science to catapult ISRO into its next growth orbit This amounts to one dedicated PSLV launch, a few more launches on piggyback, leasing of transponders and sale of remote sensing data. It is now looking at another opportunity: satellite manufacturing.
Its bread and butter, leasing of transponders, has limitations to growth. ISRO may not always have spare capacity of transponders, especially if the applications within the government grow significantly. Satellite manufacturing is a good business to be in, as there is an enormous need around the world to build new kinds of satellites. Sale of remote sensing data can also expand, as the potential uses are significantly large.
The use of space technology is going through an expansion around the world. The global satellite industry alone is around $200 billion, with the field active with venture capital investments and technology start-ups. More than 1,000 satellites already orbit the earth. More and more are being launched, many of them so tiny that they can fit in the palm of your hand. The industry is also remarkably innovative. From the outside, competition seems intense.
Consider SpaceX, the company floated by Elon Musk. Currently it is offering some of the cheapest launches in the world, undercutting everybody. Antrix is not affected as SpaceX is not in the PSLV space, but ISRO will be ready with the GSLV and compete head to head with SpaceX at some point.
Startups are coming with regularity in remote sensing, or earth observation as it known these days. SkyBox, the company Google acquired and whose satellite ISRO itself is going to launch, is an innovative earth observation company, with the capacity to provide images of any point that is not more than a few hours old at any time.
Urthecast, a Canadian startup with some clever technologies, is another challenger. Many other established players operate in earth observation, and yet the market does not look crowded. "I do not like the word competition in earth observation," says VS Hedge, managing director of Antrix. "The potential is so large that I would use the world complement."
Over the years, Antrix plans to use ISRO's earth observation system to augment its revenues. In the long run, Antrix launch services expansion is limited by domestic priorities and lack of good manufacturing facilities outside ISRO. Would India set up a flourishing private space manufacturing industry? Europe's consortium that launches Arianne rockets is a good example to follow.