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ISRO has eyes set on Venus and Mars, may find a partner in NASA

India is readying to go to Venus for the first time and re-visit the Red Planet very soon

india Updated: Feb 12, 2017 15:57 IST
PTI
Isro

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)'s PSLV C36 lifts off from Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota in December 2016. (PTI File Photo)

India will boldly go to Venus for the first time and re-visit the Red Planet very soon.

Buried and hidden in the hundreds of pages of the new format electronic budget documents, is the first acknowledgement by the government about these two new bold sojourns to Earth’s immediate neighbours.

This news comes ahead of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) attempting a mega launch in which it will drop off into space not one, two or three but a full load of 104 satellites in space in a single mission.

No other country has ever tried to hit a century in a single mission. The last world record is held by Russia which in 2014 rocketed 37 satellites in a single launch using a modified inter-continental ballistic missile.

If all goes to plan, on the morning of February 15, Isro will hurl into space, using the polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) three Indian satellites and a 101 small foreign satellites.

India is hoping to better the previous world record by a whopping two-and-a-half times. Isro, considered the new kid on the block in the multi-billion dollar world launcher market, hopes to set an enviable benchmark for the space-fairing nations.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley gave the department of space a 23% increase in its budget. Under the space sciences section, the budget mentions provisions “for Mars Orbiter Mission II and Mission to Venus”.

The second mission to Mars is planned for in 2021-2022 timeframe and as per existing plans it may well involve putting a robot on the surface of the Red Planet.

While the first mission to Mars in 2013 was a purely Indian project, the French space agency wants to collaborate in making the Mars rover.

In fact on a visit to India this month, Michael M Watkins, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Nasa, said they would be keen to at least put a telematics module so Nasa’s rovers and the Indian satellites are able to talk to each other.

The second Indian mission to Mars is likely to be all about good science since the first one had a nationalistic streak on it in trying to beat China to the orbit of Mars which the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) did magnificently.

India’s maiden mission to Venus, the second planet of the solar system, is in all probability going to be a modest orbiter mission.

Watkins said a mission to Venus is very-very worthwhile as so little is understood about that planet and Nasa would definitely be willing to partner in India’s maiden voyage to Venus.

Towards that, Nasa and Isro have already initiated talks this month on trying to jointly undertake studies on using electrical propulsion for powering this mission.

Former Isro chairman says, “India should be part of this global adventure and exploring Venus and Mars is very worthwhile since humans definitely need another habitation beyond Earth.”

Closer home, on its 39th launch India’s workhorse rocket the PSLV will lift off carrying 1,378kg of robots to be deployed in space.

The first to be let off will be India’s high resolution Cartosat-2 series satellite made especially to monitor activities of India’s hostile neighbours at a resolution of less than a metre keeping a bird’s eye view on both Pakistan and China.

This earth imaging capability is not unusual but the rest of the passengers are unique. There are two small Indian satellites each weighing less than 10kg that are forerunners of a new class of satellites called Isro nano satellites that the engineers seek to master.

Isro’s space jam

What follows next is a trailblazing performance by the PSLV when at an altitude of over 500 km in space, it will release 101 co-passengers one each from Israel, Kazakhstan, The Netherlands, Switzerland, the UAE and a 96 from the US. It is only recently American private companies have warmed up to Isro as India offers cheap and reliable option.

Eighty-eight of the American satellites belong to a San Francisco based start-up Planet Inc which, is sending a swarm of 4.7-kg each satellite it calls ‘Doves’. This constellation will image Earth, with a high repeat rate providing satellite imagery at an affordable cost.

This suite of 101 small satellites together weighing 664kg will be released in space in a manner akin to a typical school bus which drops of its passengers namely children at their respective bus stops in a sequential manner, avoiding squabbling and elbowing in near zero gravity is not easy.

Ensuring that no collisions take place even is an art that Isro has mastered from previous launches. In less than 600 seconds all 101 satellites will be released into space each travelling at whopping velocity of over 27,000km per hour or at 40 times the speed of an average passenger airliner.

Some experts are suggesting that in a bid to earn some money Isro is actually contributing significantly to the creation of space junk as these small satellites are really not very useful.

But Laura Grego, Senior Scientist, Global Security Program, Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, USA says, “I think that these launches can be done responsibly and provide benefits to all people. Developing a culture of responsible space launch and operations is key as more and more countries become space-faring.

“While the number of countries that can launch satellites independently is still quite small, many dozens of countries own and operate satellites.”

Kasturirangan says, “India has the capability of putting several satellites in a single launch and demonstrating that capability is certainly not bad, as it adds to India’s credibility and then later if Isro deploys this capability of formation flying in a constellation of its own satellites it would be a useful addition to its arsenal.”