January 3-7


Exploring space with ISRO and hi-tech

G. Madhavan Nair

Chairman, ISRO

G. Madhavan Nair
G. Madhavan Nair

INDIAN Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is a classic example to show how government investment in promoting high technology research can result in significant benefits that have social relevance. In the three decades, since the Department of Space was established and ISRO brought under this new department, the organisation has made remarkable progress in research and development leading to the establishment of operational state-of-art space systems like INSAT and IRS satellites along with commensurate launch capabilities in a self-reliant manner. But more important is the fact that these systems are used for various national tasks. ISRO is also a case in point how an advanced technology programme has to be orchestrated with a systematic graduation from experimental programmes to operational systems that can form an important element of the national infrastructure.

It was ISRO which conducted the world’s largest sociological experiment, Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) as early as 1975-76, when a series of educational programmes on health, family planning, agriculture and the like were telecast to over 2,500 Indian villages via the US satellite, ATS-6. The Satellite Telecom-munication Experimental Project (STEP), conducted using Franco-German Symphonie satellite during 1977-79, was another major demonstration of communication applications of space.

These experiments paved the way for the establishment of INSAT system in 1983. Today INSAT is one of the world’s largest domestic communication satellite system comprising seven satellites providing about 130 transponders in various frequency bands besides meteorological instruments. It has heralded a revolution in the telecommunications, television broadcasting, meteorology and disaster warning services in India.

INSAT links several hundred earth stations, including those located in inaccessible regions and offshore islands in the country and several thousand Very Small Aperture Terminals, VSATs. Television in India now covers about 65 per cent of the Indian landmass and reaches about 80 per cent of its population.

What is important is that INSAT is not only used for the regular telecommunication and television broadcast and meteorology but also for grassroots level development through telecast of educational programmes and interactive training and developmental education. It is used by many agencies and State Governments to provide continuing education, conduct in-situ training for industrial employees, social welfare personnel and training of Panchayat Raj workers. An exclusive satellite, EDUSAT, for educational use is planned for launch in 2004.

New applications of INSAT connectivity are emerging. One such application is the tele-medicine that makes specialised medical expertise available to people in remote areas. So far 46 tele-medicine nodes have been set up connecting 34 rural and remote hospitals with 12 super specialty hospitals. These include hospitals in Tripura. Leh in Jammu and Kashmir and Port Blair in Andaman and Nicobar.

The INSATs, which also carry meteorological instruments to provide meteorological data, have vastly improved the meteorological services. The INSAT system is used to track cyclone formations and their movements and issue warnings to the affected population in the coastal zones through the cyclone warning receivers.

In the use of space technology for national resources survey, ISRO started with experimental earth observation satellites, Bhaskara-1 and Bhaskara-2, launched in June 1979 and November 1981 respectively. ISRO has now emerged on the forefront by establishing and operating the world’s largest constellation of remote sensing satellites. The IRS system provides data in a variety of spatial resolutions and spectral bands. The most advanced satellite in the series, RESOURCESAT-1, was launched by India’s own PSLV in October 2003. ISRO has also launched an exclusive satellite, OCEANSAT-1, for ocean resources survey and for studying the atmosphere over the oceans. Another remote sensing satellite, Cartosat-1, exclusively for mapping applications, is planned for launch in 2004-05. The design and development of a Radar Imaging Satellite, RISAT, capable of taking imageries both during night and day as well as in cloudy conditions, is also under development. It can thus help in monitoring agricultural crops and flood situations in spite of cloudy weather conditions.

The data received from the IRS satellites are used for monitoring and managing the nation’s resources like production estimation of important crops, forest survey, drought prediction, flood mapping and demarcation of flood-risk zones, land use and land cover mapping for agro-climatic planning, waste land mapping and classification, preparation of hydro-geo-morphological maps for locating bore wells, marine resources survey, mineral prospecting, monitoring of irrigation command areas, snow-cover and snow-melt run-off estimation and so on. The data is also used in urban infrastructure planning, alignment of roads and pipelines, detection of underground fires in collieries, etc.

ISRO has achieved self-reliance in launch vehicle technology too. Starting with a small satellite launch vehicle, SLV-3, launched in 1980, ISRO has successfully commissioned its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, PSLV, capable of placing 1,000-1200 kg class satellite into 820 km polar sun-synchronous orbit. It had so far seven consecutively successful flights demonstrating its reliability. PSLV is now used for launching all Indian remote-sensing satellites. It has also launched an exclusive satellite, Kalpana-1, for meteorological services. A major milestone recently was the second successful test flight of Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, GSLV, in May 2003, which enabled its commissioning into service. GSLV is designed to place 2,000-kg class communication satellites into geo-stationary transfer orbit. The vehicle will pave the way for launching India’s communication, broadcasting and meteorological satellites in to the geo-stationary orbit. Also, the development of a new version of GSLV to launch up to four tonne satellite into Geo-synchronous Transfer Orbit has been taken up.

As an institution, ISRO has acted as an important catalyst in the technological upgradation of Indian industries by enlisting their participation in its programme. It has transferred several technologies to industries for commercial applications. A number of systems for remote sensing data processing, communication earth stations and terminal equipment has opened up a significant market for the industry. The space systems like the INSAT and IRS have also triggered a large number of service sector entrepreneurs in communication and broad casting systems and value added services catering to remote sensing data users.

ISRO has a strong interface with the academia, which has helped the space program to use the research expertise available in research institutions and academia in its space program. It has also triggered front ranking research in these institutions.

While largely remaining as an R&D institution, ISRO has enabled commercial benefits to accrue to the nation through the commercial corporation, ANTRIX that has made forays in international market. There are commercial agreements for reception and marketing of data from Indian Remote Sensing satellites. ISRO’s INSAT satellite capacity has been leased to International customers. PSLV has so far launched four small satellites of other countries on commercial terms.

Thus, there has been a significant allround benefit to the nation and certainly the investment that the government has made in an institution like ISRO has not gone in vain.