Newsclick spoke to D. Raghunandan, from Delhi Science Forum regarding the recent record satellite launch by ISRO. This launch has been talked highly about by the media across the world. Everyone is in awe about what a world record it is. We talked to D. Raghunandan to try and understand if it actually is as big a deal as the mainstream media is showing. He talks in detail about the satellites. Who owns them? What are their specifications? And what is the technological innovation in this mission? He also talked about the future plans of ISRO.
Neha Mishra (NM): Hello and welcome to NewsClick. Today we have with us D. Raghunandan from Delhi Science Forum. We are going to talk about the ISRO launches. Sir, we know that ISRO has launched 104 satellites and everyone is talking about what a big record it is, almost 2 to 3 times of the previous record. So what do you have to say about that?
D. Raghunandan (DR): Well, I think there has been the usual Indian tendency to blow your own trumpet and talk about big records. We went to town when India sent a rocket to the moon, to mars. Although, in technological terms neither was a great achievement and to me frankly, this launch by ISRO also falls under that category. Yes, it is a world record, but I don't think there is a any great technological innovation that ISRO has done to enable this record. It is a record. But as the Chairman of the ISRO himself said that the launch was less about records than about proving the viability and reliability of ISRO as a launch vehicle which can service a variety of clients. And I think, if we have to really understand the significance of this launch, one ought to be looking at where does ISRO fit in the global picture of commercial launch vehicles. What ISRO has done with science and technology, what it hopes it would do and I think the more interesting part which almost no media has covered has been what are these satellites that have been launched. We are talking about 104 satellites. But if you look at the media coverage could be match boxes. We don't know what these satellites are about and I think there is a big story there which I think people would like to know about.
NM: Could you then please then tell us about the satellites? We are talking about records but we don't really know what these satellites are.
DR: The satellite fall into two broad categories. One is, India has launched its own satellite which is a remote sensing satellite, part of what is called Cartosat series as the name suggests it is a cartographic satellite. It is remote sensing satellite mostly focused on coastal areas, on road networks and so on. That's what these satellites would do. That is roughly half the weight of the total payload carried by the C-37, the launch vehicle about 700 odd kilos. The remaining 680 odd kilos are distributed among the 103 other satellites. So most of these other satellites are what are known in the parlance as nano satellites, a very tiny satellites. The Indian one too which ISRO has put up, ISRO nano satellites are both roughly in the 8-10 kilos range. But almost all the international satellites which we have put up are much smaller in the 4 kilos range of satellites. I think of the particular interest is of the fact that almost all the international satellites that this launch put up follow the CubeSat standards. That's a new standard that has been around 15 years where most other satellites which are put in space are custom built. They tend to be very large and so on. With the advances in technology, particularly in miniaturization like most of the jobs that a huge main frame computer would have done 30 years ago is today done by a small laptop, same thing is happening in space technology where small satellites are able to do the job which earlier would have required a very large satellites to do. One particular company has put up in this launch a total of 88 satellites in one go, basically because this company wants to have a set, it’s called a constellation like stars of 150 odd satellites on all orbit around the earth which together will provide you 24x7 coverage of the entire planet at any given point of time. So a client can go to a company and say, I want a photograph of of the port in Vishakapatnam and you will get. Another client can ask for the shot of port in London and you can get that as well and they are not doing this with large satellites but with these tiny satellites. The other advantage of these CubeSats, as they are called, is that they are all in the 10 cm cube range or multiples. So it is 10x10x10 or 20x20x20 like that. Most of these satellites are in the three times ten. So it is called three cube standard and the good part about these satellites is that they all use standard electronic component which you can buy in the market. So designing satellites is no longer the big mysterious custom made job it used to be earlier and in fact the CubeSat standard arose out of universities in order to get students and academicians involved in this, which otherwise they would not be able to do and because of the standard size the launching also becomes easier.
So in fact, in yesterday's launch by ISRO you had these 100 odd satellites which were together and they have a special launch container and the ISRO launch vehicle once it entered orbit just every ten seconds would shove out a cannister, each of which would release three nano-satellites and thereby covering the earth. So I think the methodology of this is interesting, the nature of these satellites would be interesting and it indicates the future of what is likely to happen in space. I think, more and more you are likely to see the large custom designed satellites being replaced by smaller satellites and I think that's going to be a trend.
I’ve just spoken to you about the constellation of 88 satellites called the Dove satellites. The other highly innovative set of satellites put up by the ISRO launch yesterday were the Leber satellites. Eight of them put up to spier global. These are extremely innovative in the sense that while most of the satellites do imagery, capturing visual images from the earth's surface, this satellite is engaged in capturing radio signals. So it is audio based. They look at GPS signaling from ships and other cargo vessels moving around on earth for various clients and in theory a few years down the road sufficient satellites around, they should be able to capture the movement virtually of any cargo carrying vehicle whether on land, sea or air. The same set of satellites also uses a technique to use GPS signals use the effect that they are going through the atmosphere which bends the signals and then from them obtain atmospheric data, weather data and data that relates to climate change and I think these would be of very high value both scientifically and commercially in the years to come. I think ISRO could do very well in learning how to innovate products in terms of satellites and how they are used rather than only be looking at launching vehicles.
NM: International media is focusing a lot on this achievement by India. They are calling it the new space race. So can you please throw some light on it?
DR: Well, I think that is the significant part of the ISRO launch, is that it cements India's position in the international launch market particularly for launching small satellites in low earth orbits. Part of this, like with many areas in which Indian Science and Technology has worked has been India has constrained. We don't have access to latest technologies. We haven't developed latest technologies ourselves but within the limitations of what we can do, we try to achieve the maximum what we can and do various innovations within that. We have done that in space and we have done that in nuclear as well. I think, this is an example. So we have specialized in a niche market. If people want a large communication satellite for television coverage, big military satellites they will not come to India at the moment because India still has only the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, the PSLV.
We don't yet have our GSLV which should be launched for the larger vehicle launches. But for smaller launches people are now increasingly looking at India. This example, I gave you of 88 nano satellites. The same company had come to ISRO before and had launched 12 satellites earlier and has now come with the repeat order to complete their constellation by putting 88 satellites across. Another company which has also been put it there which is an equally interesting exercise in satellite usage has come and put up a dozen or so satellites. Again coming specifically to ISRO, having looked at other options earlier. So ISRO is establishing its position and consolidating its position in launching small satellites in low earth orbits which even in Asia, China doesn't do as a commercial venture and Japan and South Korea have not yet reached that stage. So it is certainly true that India has marked out a space but I think to put in perspective, India has carved out a niche for itself. But in a 300 billion dollar space launch market in the world, this is a very small niche. India even for its own communication satellite needs is still going to the European Space Agency or to other launchers and it is not able to do those by itself.
NM: What do you think is the ISRO's plan next?
DR: Well, this year should mark the beginning of India stabilizing its GSLV lauches. We have got two or three GSLV launches slated for this year. I think that will be interesting to watch because India had three successive, successful launches of GSLV which is a landmark and normally is used as a standard to judge whether you have reached a level of competence and you can say yeah we have got a good reliable launch vehicle. If we do another two or three successful launches of GSLV this year, I think we would have entered a new phase. India is also trying out a reusable launch vehicle, that is a rocket that you send up but which comes back. The prototype that India has developed looks very much like the American Space shuttle. It is that kind of a thing whereas reusable rockets in US and elsewhere which are being designed are standard vertical rockets which go up and come back down the same way. Whereas the one India has designed will land like an Aircraft on a runway the way space shuttle did. If you do develop reusable launch vehicles that will further reduce cost of launches. So India would have then gone into another league in terms of the competition it can enter for commercial launches and then as far as the science is concerned, India is planning a couple of interesting shots to Mars and to the moon and that we will watch out not this year, but the years to come.
NM: Thank you so much Sir. That was very informative. Thank you for watching Newsclick. We will come back to you with more such stuff.
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