India Shining: A Technology update – Part 2 Space

This is part 2 of my continued effort at looking at Technological Innovation in India. You can read the first part here.

Space the final frontier, and we are some of the foremost people who have ventured into the vast enormities of space. Of course the Americans and Russians are known for most of the innovations in this field of science, but we are not far behind. A good example of our capabilities in the field of space would be the percentage of Indians in NASA. This articleon actually references the Times of India to say that there are 36%.  Which means its one in 3 or here there and everywhere, however there are other sites that place this number lower. The fact remains that the Indian presence in NASA is irrevocable, it even formed an interesting backdrop in the movie Swades.

My tryst with the Indian Spare Research Organization (ISRO) happened when we were doing our final year project during my Engineering days, and we were fortunate enough to be around for the launch of a satellite by ISRO. The satellite was one of the first for photographing India from above in space, and it could process images until a height of 5 metes.

A few years from then, I am fortunate enough to witness ISRO launch ‘Bhuvan’ a map-based web application with deeper Zoom (upto 6 meters from surface) and plenty of other futuristic features such as complex poly-lines, geodesic calculations, 2D-3D images, shadow analysis, snapshot creation etc. Also, quite appropriately, ‘Bhuvan’ is more focused on the Indian landscape. Though at the moment the web-app is far from being usable, the initiative is just a shot in the arm of the Indian engineering and R & D Scene. ISRO intends to refresh its images every year — a feature that would give it an edge over its biggest rival and help keep track of the frenetic pace at which Indian cities are growing.  You can check out Bhuvan here at

Apart from taking on Google in the mapping arena, ISRO is also working on several key technologies that could completely change the placement of India in the space age.  ISRO is one of only 6 agencies in the world who have launch capabilities for satellites, rubbing shoulders with giants like the United States, Russia is nothing short of an achievement. India uses its satellites communication network – one of the largest in the world – for applications such as land management, water resources management, natural disaster forecasting, radio networking, weather forecasting, meteorological imaging and computer communication. Business, administrative services, and schemes such as the National Informatics Center (NICNET) are direct beneficiaries of applied satellite technology. Some of the awesome achievements in the field of Space would definately be.

Image courtest : ISRO

Shooting the Moon: ISRO launched the Chandryaan-1, an orbital space satellite designed to map the surface of the moon. Since NASA proposed a new initiative to use the moon as a starting point for an eventual manned mission to Mars, India has stepped forward to help out. The initial plans of the Chandrayaan-1 were that it will begin a two-year mission where it will aim to send back millions of high-quality images for scientists around the globe to ponder. Just 100 kilometers above endless miles of dusty planes, Chandryaan will drop a miniature probe to test future technology that could one day be the proposed basis for a lunar landing where the ISRO could use its own robotic rovers. Scientists from the European Union, United States and Bulgaria have all contributed instruments to the mission. However, ISRO lost communication with it due to solar winds, but in the process, Chandrayaan relayed information about finding water on the surface of the moon. This was a first.

SCRAMJET: When you absolutely, positively have to get a jet to move at 25 times the speed of sound, the only practical option is to construct an engine that uses atmospheric air to fuel combustion. To reach those speeds it’s just not practical to carry along your own oxygen like most rocket engines do. The trick seems to be finding a balance between drag and thrust — otherwise the engines won’t fire up, or worse, they could break apart. Eleven countries have ongoing hypersonic programs, but no one has yet been able to announce anything much better than a short flight. Seeing the SCRAMJET, or Supersonic Combustion Ramjet, as an integral part of developing a reusable launch vehicle, ISRO is working on developing its own Re-entry Launch Vehicle and recently tested an engine on the ground that fired at Mach 6 for seven seconds. Unlike the space shuttle, the RLV won’t thrust itself into orbit, but only briefly exit the Earth’s atmosphere, deposit a satellite into orbit and then come back down to the space center. Once perfected, the RLV could eliminate the need for disposable jet stages and significantly cut launch costs.

Rocket science: Sending delicate objects made out of metal and glass into space without breaking them into a million pieces or dropping them into a nearby ocean is not something to be taken lightly. India has successfully put 44 satellites into orbit. Until a recent failure in which the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle, a disposable three-stage cryogenic rocket designed for launching communications satellites, exploded a minute after takeoff, ISRO had an impressive string of successful launches. A second disposable rocket that positions reconaissance satellites into polar orbits, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle has only had one failure in eight launches and had launched the Chandryaan probe last year. In the coming two years India will complete research on a new launch craft, the GSLV-III, that will be able to handle large satellites weighing up to 6 tons into space.

Miniature satellites: Building disposable multi-stage rockets that only launch one or two satellites at a time before they succumb to the will of gravity and burn up in the atmosphere doesn’t exactly give you bang for your rupee. So a team of scientists at the ISRO have begun to develop miniature satellites specially outfitted to be deployed by their two currently operational launch vehicles. According to Raghava Murthy, the project director for the small satellite program, the ISRO is developing miniature modules half the size of the average dining room table that could be launched up to 16 at a time.

Remote sensing: The bulk of India’s space program hasn’t devoted much time to looking into the remote corners of the universe; instead it has spent most of its time looking back at Earth. Just about every one of the 44 satellites launched by ISRO has had at least one instrument with a camera or other scientific instrument. Together these programs have produced major breakthroughs in search and rescue, detecting climatic shifts, uncovering archaeological ruins, managing fisheries and forests, and detecting water in the most barren areas of the planet. The technology is on par with the best the world has to offer, with one major advantage: The average satellite can be had for half the price.

Telemedicine: India has world-class health infrastructure in the big cities, but most of the country’s population only has access to village doctors whose credentials are crash courses in first aid from run-down medical colleges. With telemedicine, specialist doctors in the city are able to diagnose and treat illnesses in the remotest corners of the country from the comfort of their own hospitals. ISRO satellites now connect over 271 rural districts with first-rate doctors in the metro areas. There is even a satellite-dish-sporting clinic on wheels that covers the remote areas of Tamil Nadu providing care to people for whom a trip to the city for treatment could be life-threatening.

Telecommunications: Before 1980 India had virtually no TV. One state-run channel provided most of the programming and it was only available in a few select areas through scattered terrestrial transmitters. In 1982 India launched the INSAT satellite program that has stewarded over 20 communications satellites and brought increasing television and meteorological coverage to the nation. Now most of the nation is covered in the warm blanket of MTV, Discovery Channel, and a host of local language stations that proffer news and some of the most melodramatic soap operas ever conceived. Truly, the space age means that even the most rural villagers have a chance to be part of the MTV generation.

Apart from all these, The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is building the technology blocks needed to “neutralise” hostile satellites in low earth and polar orbits, having the ability to target any satellite in case some nation tries to use the satellite neutralization techniques. According to ISRO Chairman Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, India is getting ready to launch Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) with indigenously developed cryogenic engine.

What ISRO is working on, could definately change the way India is perceived in the Science and technology world, with low pay, low benefits and even lower motivation to work, this is my salute to all the ISRO engineers and Scientists who are making it happen for us. I hope our government decides to help them boost their motivation at least a bit.


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