July 14, 2015 was a historic day for space science. Nasa's New Horizons completed its three billion mile and decade-long journey through the solar system while making its closest approach to Pluto, about 7,750 miles above the surface of the planet -- roughly the distance between New York and Mumbai -- making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth. Since then it has captured various glimpses of the Dwarf Planet.
"There were challenges in the Pluto mission, such as making the spacecraft, especially the instruments, small enough and low power enough that we could minimise the time it took to get there and still be able to do amazing science," said a Nasa spokesperson in an email interaction with HT. While Pluto may still be a distant dream for India, the country's space agency, Indian Space Research Organisation, is scripting its own success story.
Buoyed by the success of its low cost maiden mission to Mars, the space agency is busy working on a number of new launches and missions. While new missions to Mars, Venus and an asteroid are still at the discussion stage, a second mission to the moon, planned for 2017-18, intends to expand India's scientific knowledge and upgrade its technological capability.
Read: Conditions on Pluto are hazy with flowing ice
Unlike the first one which only had an orbiter, Chandrayaan- 2 will have an orbiter, lander and rover to perform mineralogical and elemental studies of the lunar surface. Then there's the Astrosat mission that aims to establish an astronomical observatory in space, a sort of 'mini' Hubble. Next, the Sun mission plans to study the solar dynamics in the chromosphere and the corona. Isro is also working towards launching its heaviest rocket by the end of the next year. This will make the country self reliant in launching heavier satellites. The SAARC satellite, expected to be launched before December 2016, will help foster ties with neighbouring countries.
The next few years will also see Isro collaborating more with Nasa. "The two agencies are collaborating on the Nasa-Isro Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission, planned for launch in 2020. This mission will make global measurements of the causes and consequences of land surface changes and will improve our understanding of key impacts of climate change and advance our knowledge of natural hazards," said a Nasa spokesperson.
The Isro -Nasa Mars Working Group was established in September 2014 to enhance cooperation between the two countries. "Initial efforts of the working group have focused on sharing data and coordinating observations and science analysis between Isro's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) and Nasa's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) mission. The working group will also discuss potential future opportunities for Mars collaboration," said the Nasa spokesperson.
One of the first images of the red planet sent by Mars Orbiter.
Despite the progress made in space research, India does not as yet have a declared space policy. "India could start by issuing a white paper on outer space by listing its long-term goals and objectives," says space security expert and senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan. Then, there is the as-yet-unfulfilled dream of a manned mission to space. Space scientist Narendra Bhandari believes India should master the technology of sending and sustaining humans in space and bringing them back safely. "But the main thrust of the space programme should be robotic missions," he says.
An exciting new space era awaits India, and Isro is all set for the odyssey.
IT HAS BEEN A SPECTACULAR JOURNEY: UR RAO
On 19 April, 1975, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) successfully launched Aryabhata, India's first unmanned indigenous satellite from the erstwhile Soviet Union. In an interview, UR Rao, project director for Aryabhata and former chairman of Isro tells Vanita Srivastava about the challenges he faced then and the future of space research in India.
As project director of Aryabhata, what were the main challenges How has the space journey been since then?
As the project director of the Aryabhata project, I had to immediately gather a group of over 250 young scientists and engineers. My group of about 40 scientists and engineers at Thiruvananthapuram and at the Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad, who had joined me during 1969-1970, two years after my return from the US, had to be quickly augmented by about 200 fresh engineers and scientists, to be able to fulfill our agreement to deliver to the Soviets, a fully qualified satellite for launch in two-and-a-half years. These engineers and scientists, freshly recruited from universities, who had no knowledge of space and space satellites, had to be trained quickly to start contributing to the development of our first space satellite Aryabhata. I selected Bangalore for starting satellite technology in India. In 1972, I could get only industrial sheds, which were being built by the state government at Peenya Industrial Estate on the outskirts of Bangalore. It was a Herculean task since none of the young engineers and scientists belonging to various disciplines had any knowledge of satellite technology or space environment. Notwithstanding, we succeeded in building, testing and qualifying our first satellite, Aryabhata, for launch from Kapustin Yar Cosmodrome on April 19, 1975, within a period of about two-and-a-half years, starting from scratch, which was indeed an outstanding feat. Since then, India has progressed remarkably on the space frontier. Our mission to the moon and the more recent one to Mars has put us on the global space map. The journey from Aryabhata to the Mars Orbiter Mission has been truly spectacular.
Should India embark on a manned mission? What are the challenges?
I believe India should plan for a manned mission. We will have to improve the capability of our rockets to be able to launch at least six to eight tons of payload.
What kind of initiatives would attract young people to work for space missions?
The success of our space programme and its extensive application to solve our national problems can certainly attract the youth. Space has already become very popular amongst students. I am confident that we can attract the best talent in the country if we continue to carry out truly high quality space research.
Does India have the potential to send a spacecraft to Pluto?
Not yet. We need to develop more powerful rockets. But India can achieve such a capability in a few years, if the space department is properly funded and intelligently managed.
What should be the future roadmap for India's space programmes?
India has to keep abreast of the vast developments in space technology and their utilisation. Space technology has already become vital for providing nationwide communication, disaster management, meteorological forecasting, agricultural development, health management, education and a host of vital nationwide applications. Space technology is essential in order to promote precision agriculture for improving our agricultural output to meet the basic requirements of our growing population.
Space technology is expected to solve our energy problem and also provide access to mineral and other resources from nearby planets and planetary systems to support life on Earth, by substantially augmenting the rapidly depleting mineral and energy resources, which are likely to be completely exhausted in about 150 years. Optimal utilisation of space technology is the best promise we have, to augment our energy, mineral and other vital resources and help the survival of humanity on our own planet earth.