The year ISRO got back its power and patriotism

If 2013 proved to be good for ISRO and space enthusiasts, 2014 can prove to be even better. Mankind will get more details, pictures and data of the awesome Martian landscape

Seema Singh
Updated: Dec 24, 2013 12:21:31 PM UTC

It’s that time of the year when most media outlets do a stock-taking – the best and the worst of news and news-makers of the year. This post is no such attempt. As the year comes to a close, I think one of the defining moments of 2013 in India has been the successful take-off of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and the way it changed ISRO’s public communication: Nearly 300,000 followers on Facebook in less than three months of debuting on the social network! Hope it's not restricted to MOM alone.

It certainly speaks of people’s innate desire to learn and care about science, particularly space science. People have watched Mars maneuvers and updates at 6 am, at midnight, even corrected the ISRO social media team when they merely said the task was ‘completed’, forcing them to add the word “successful”. (So successful was ISRO on social media that in no time several fakes sprung up, forcing ISRO to issue a statement on fake ISRO identities.)

Not many Indian scientific institutions can afford to have such mega projects that also catch the public imagination but at least they can make a beginning, in their own way, in reaching out to the people. They are obliged to do that; after all, nearly 80 percent of science in this country is done with taxpayers’ money. (More on that in some other post.)

This year has been good for ISRO, particularly if seen in the light of late 2010 and most of 2011 when the space agency was bogged down by Devas controversy which hurt most of its programmes. By that measure, 2013 saw some serious milestones being covered. (You can read about some of the technical gains from this mission in Forbes India year-end special which hits the stands on Dec 27.)

With the February launch of Saral, an oceanographic satellite which carries payloads made by the French agency CNES, ISRO also put six other satellites from four countries into the orbit. In July, it launched IRNSS-IA, the first in the series of seven satellites that will constitute India’s own navigation system, a limited version of GPS (global positioning system), so to say. Called Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), its second satellite IRNSS-1B is getting ready for launch in the first quarter of 2014, says ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan.

However, it was the Mars Orbiter launch of 5 November 2013 that evoked images of the awesome Martian landscape and united most space loving people in the country. Quite a feat it was to launch MOM using Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, India’s trusted and versatile rocket, which hurled the spacecraft in a low earth orbit just when NASA launched MAVEN directly into the Mars orbit. Some critics have argued that ISRO showed hurry in choosing PSLV instead of waiting for GSLV to get ready for a Martian mission. That not only would have launched the satellite in an orbit closer to Mars but perhaps would also carry more instruments. But the fact that a Mars mission opportunity comes only every 26 months, if ISRO had missed the November 2013 chance, it’d have had to wait until 2016 for the next mission because the GSLV is not ready yet.

ISRO chairman says there’s a subtle technical point here which people are missing. It’s true that GSLV would give a higher apogee, say 40,000 km as opposed to 23,000 km which was achieved by the PLSV but it’s the attainment of the Argument of Perigee where GSLV is unsuitable. For this mission, the Argument of Perigee had to be 280 degrees but GSLV could achieve only about 180, rendering it unsuitable as the launch vehicle. (While Perigee is the point of the orbit closest to the centre of the earth, Argument of Perigee is the angle from south to north equator to the point of perigee and helps determine the orbital ellipse in which the spacecraft moves). As for the instruments, ISRO says there has been no compromise. When the Mission was announced, they started with 33 instruments, narrowed it down to 11, then 9, and finally zeroed in on 5 instruments. The chairman says whatever was built and qualified for flying has been carried on the spacecraft.

It’d have been a cracker of a year for ISRO if the GSLV–D5 — a vehicle that in the proverbial sense is proving to be rocket science for ISRO – was launched on August 19 as planned but it got called off at the last minute. A leak was detected in the fuel system of the liquid second stage of the engine. Radhakrishnan says he’s satisfied with the way the leak was detected and then managed. Nearly 350 tons of propellant was loaded in the vehicle which could have led to any kind of mishap. A review meeting is planned for December 27 which will decide the date of launch but in all likelihood GSLV will be launched on January 5.

Photo Courtesy NASA’s Curiosity: These rocks record superimposed ancient lake and stream deposits that offered past environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Rocks here were exposed about 70 million years ago by removal of overlying layers due to erosion by the wind.

In short, with GLSV launch in January, the MOM entry into Mars orbit in September, with a smattering of other launched interspersed throughout the year, ISRO will, hopefully, keep space buffs connected to its Facebook site which it is updating with discipline and enthusiasm. The Red Planet will continue to fascinate us. A fortnight ago, Science published findings from Curiosity Rover which shows that all the elements of life (oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus, nitrogen, carbon and sulphur—which are considered by biologists to be fundamental to life) were present in one place, a dried lake bed, towards the south of the Martian equator. The nearby geology also supports the evidence of river channels.

More such findings may surface in 2014. Can ISRO’s MOM then tweak its payloads to add to the knowledge that Curiosity, MAVEN or other missions may throw up in the next several months? ISRO says it is tracking and talking to other mission heads but the capability of its instruments is fixed. What can indeed be maneuvered is the amount and quality of observations that these instruments can make.

MOM or MAVEN, Curiosity or Opportunity, the year 2014 certainly holds great promise for space science.

The year also ends on a promising note for the space start-ups, not necessarily in India though. Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who was an early investor in blockbusters like Facebook, Twitter and Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, last week pumped in several millions in a space start-up, PlanetLabs. Founded by NASA scientists, PlanetLabs, with its bunch of satellites, hopes to have the largest network of imagery satellites in space.

The next “launch” for ISRO should be to encourage and help fund a few Indian start-ups to take similar Moonshots! There’s nothing like space to fire a generation’s imagination. Nasa’s Apollo programme proved that beyond doubt.

PS: This is my last post for Forbes India. The year comes to an end, so does my tenure at the magazine as I choose to move on. Far from the madding world of viral content and (web)traffic wars, this blog has dealt with sober topics, topics that might not have got boatloads of unique visitors (the metric that matters in the digital world) like Bollywood or cricket posts get, but it got some involved readers. Thank you all for that. Wish you a Prosperous and Productive 2014. 

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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