Public Diplomacy

Important milestones crossed by India in space

April 11, 2014

By Pallava Bagla

The Indian space agency had a good week both in its maiden inter-planetary venture and in its efforts to provide the country its very own satellite based navigation system.

An important milestone was notched in India's mission to Mars lovingly as it crossed the halfway mark of its arduous journey on April 9, 2014 morning at 9.50 am. Launched on November 5, 2013 it has travelled some 337.5 million kilometres till now and is expected to rendezvous with the Red Planet on September 24, 2014 becoming the farthest any Indian object has ever travelled.

Called `Mangalyaan’ it was made at a mere cost of Rs 4500 million (about USD 70 million) and it is the cheapest inter planetary mission ever to be conceived by humans. The main objective is to look for signatures of life on mars and to fulfil India's deep desire to beat its regional rival China in reaching Mars. The latter seems on track as really nothing can really stop it from reaching near Mars thanks to the nature of planetary forces and the precise orbit injection by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

images/infocus22.jpgThe Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle - D5 (GSLV- D5), carrying satellite GSAT-14 being launched from Sriharikota, near Chennai

Some 500 scientists toiled day and night to ready this craft in a record 15 months. The journey to Mars is tough to say the least. Till date 51 missions have been launched and 27 have failed. If India reaches Mars it would be the first 'country' to achieve it on its maiden flight. Till date only USA, Russia and the European Space Agency have successfully reached the Red Planet.

India today invests just about $ 1 billion annually in the ISRO which is the custodian of all space technology for the country. It was set up in 1969 and today employs about 16,000 people.

images/infocus23.jpgScientists at work on India's Mars Oribiter Mission at ISRO centre in Bangalore

A little earlier in the week on April 4, 2014, ISRO created history with 25 successful launches in a row. The Indian space agency made history by launching the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV successfully 25 times in a row, bringing India one step closer to its very global positioning system or what some call the `desi’ GPS.

The 44 meter, 320 ton, PSLV rocket successfully lifted off into the clear blue sky at 5.14 PM from Sriharikota and 19 minutes later accurately placed India's second navigation satellite in space.

A jubilant K. Radhakrishnan, Chairman, ISRO said `PSLV in its 25 th successive successful flight precisely injected India’s second regional navigation satellite.’

This latest launch brings the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) one step closer to start the Indian version of a satellite navigation system. Similar, in functionality to the American Global Positioning System (GPS), but it is regional in coverage. India will be the sixth country in the world to have this system. This is vitally important in times of war since most modern precision bombs and missiles depend on accurate positioning. Some may naturally ask if this satellite navigation system by India were working would it have been possible to locate the lost Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, unfortunately the simple answer is no.

Today if you are tech savvy then getting lost may soon become very difficult. India is progressing to install its own satellite navigation system; a fleet of 7 satellites that help provide precise locations better than 20 meters. Till now most of us have relied on the American GPS or the Global Positioning System, very popular on smart phones but not good enough for military applications. India becomes the 6 nation to embark on this after America, Russia, Europe, China and Japan.

The constellation of Indian satellites will continuously beam down data that can be read by special hand held instruments which when calibrated using sensors based on the ground can help pin point location.

images/infocus24.jpgThe India made satellite INSAT - 3D on its launch in July 2013
India’s satellite system is designed to cover a region of about 1500 km on either side of the border, essentially covering the geographical region from where India has a perception of threat; both Pakistan and China are within the footprint.

In its 26 flight India’s workhorse rocket the PSLV hoisted a 1432 kilogram special satellite that carries on it a precision clock called an atomic clock and a set of other home-made instruments that beam down accurate time and location data. The entire fleet of seven satellites is likely to be ready by 2016 when Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) will become operational. The first Indian navigation satellite launched last year in July is working normally.

ISRO is now gearing for the first experimental flight of its largest rocket the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III that will be launched sometime in the middle of this year from Sriharikota and will flight test India’s first crew module.

Go ISRO go boldly where no Indian has ever gone before!

(Pallava Bagla is Science Editor for New Delhi Television and a globally recognized science writer. Author of the book `Destination Moon: India’s Quest for Moon, Mars and beyond’. Views expressed are personal. He can be reached at:;
Twitter: pallavabagla
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