The South Asia Satellite

The ISRO will launch the GSLV tomorrow carrying the South Asian Satellite on board. ISRO calls it the GSAT-9. It will carry Indian transponders that will be used by India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The Wire has a short video describing the significance of the launch and some prior history.


GSAT-9 seen with the two halves of the payload fairing of the GSLV-F09. Image Credit: ISRO

I think this launch will be important for India for two things. One is to prove, further, the reliability of the GSLV as a launch vehicle capable of regularly delivering communication satellites into orbit. This improves with each launch. As this reliability improves, it brings in business in communication satellite launches as well as reduces India’s dependence on foreign launch vehicles. The second is to improve availability of transponders for users on the ground. Indian transponders can thence be leased and commercialized after meeting India’s requirements.

It would be interesting to see if the use of the transponders by some of our neighboring countries provides them with sufficiently good experience that they will continue using Indian transponders or even ask for multiple transponders. This would make it important again to improve the reliability of the GSLV and the GSLV Mk-III to put enough communication satellites into orbit to service these future requirements. Could then India wean off South East Asian countries from American and European transponders to Indian ones?

Interestingly, this satellite also carries with it an electric propulsion experiment. This satellite is expected to stay in orbit for 12 years. Communication satellites usually  last around 10 years. They have to carry as much fuel for what is known as station keeping. The satellites begin to drift from orbit like kites that we fly. We tug at the kite to keep it at one place and prevent it from drifting too far away. The satellite has no strings attached and hence the satellite will have to use fuel on-board to reach its orbit as well as to stay there.

Using electric propulsion completely for doing station keeping would reduce the amount of fuel the satellite would have to carry. This means we can add more transponders which in turn would mean fewer satellites could meet the requirements. But, this is an experiment and hence ISRO is still carrying the fuel it normally would had the electric propulsion system had not been there. I am also delighted to hear that the GSAT-20 mission flying next year will also carry an electric propulsion system on board. The lessons we learn from the experiment on the GSAT-9 would be incorporated.

ISRO to launch 5 British satellites as its first commercial launch in 2015

ISRO will launch 5 British Satellites on behalf of Antrix Corporation (which is ISRO’s commercial arm) on board the PSLV-C28 vehicle on July 10, 2015. This is the PSLV’s 30th mission. ISRO will use the PSLV’s Extended Length (XL) variant to launch 1440 kg payload consisting of 5 British satellites into orbit.

The 5 satellites are the Surrey Satellite Technology Limited’s (SSTL) DMC3 satellites and CNBT-1 satellites and the Surrey Space Center’s DeOrbitSail spacecraft.

DMC3 satellites

The DMC stands for the Disaster Management Constellation of 3 satellites built by the SSTL for it’s wholly owned subsidiary, DMCii (DMC International Imaging Ltd) which is executing this project for a Chinese company, 21AT.

A visualisation of the orbit and position of each satellite in the DMC constellation. Image Courtesy: SSTL

A visualisation of the orbit and position of each satellite in the DMC constellation. Image Courtesy: SSTL

The DMC constellation is a group of 3 small satellites placed in orbit 120 degrees apart, as shown in the image above. The idea is to quickly image areas which have been struck by disaster with high-resolution cameras (1 m resolution) with a capability to provide very fast down link in order to help make the images available quickly in order to assess damage and plan disaster response.


I could not read much about this satellite but it seems that the company that built it, SSTL will share more details after the launch. All that is known for sure right now is that it weighs 91 kg and is a technology demonstrator mission.


This is an interesting 7 kg 3U cubesat with dimensions of 10 x 10 x 34 cm. It contains a highly densely packed 4 x 4 meter sail which will be deployed in space in order to increase drag in order to cause the spacecraft to deorbit and return back to Earth. The project is developed by the Surrey Space Center (not the same as SSTL).


The Spacecraft mounted on the Launch adapter called the L-adapter. Image Courtesy: ISRO

The Spacecraft mounted on the Launch adapter called the L-adapter. Image Courtesy: ISRO

For ISRO, the challenge begins with the three DMC3 spacecrafts. It had to fit in these 3 satellites each of which has a length of 3 meters into the 3.2 m diameter, 8.9 m long payload fairing of the PSLV-XL. They resolved the issue by changing the launch adapter. A launch adapter is basically a platform on which the satellites are kept and launched from once the last stage of the PSLV reaches the designated orbit and orientation. The vehicle uses a new launch adapter which has a triangular deck and is called the Multiple Satellite Adapter – Version 2 (MSA-V2).

Illustration of the Multiple Satellite Adapter - Version 2 (MSA-V2) with the satellite mounted and showing the launch of various satellites. Image Courtesy:

Illustration of the Multiple Satellite Adapter – Version 2 (MSA-V2) with the satellite mounted and showing the launch of various satellites. Image Courtesy:

A success now will help cement the PSLV’s record and hopefully bring more business Antrix’s way. This launch shows that even commercial launches can make requirements on a proven launch vehicle that if managed would improve the agility of the variety of satellites that the PSLV is capable of putting into orbit. This agility lowers cost and enables Antrix to reach a wider market to sell launches on the PSLV. Wishing ISRO Godspeed.

Review: ISRO Annual Report 2013-14

I saw the link to the 2013-14 Annual Report on the ISRO website thanks to the blinking “NEW” sign next to it. Usually, ISRO reports go over the top with missions that they tend to be working on and hoping to cover more ground than they realistically could. It usually had timelines that no one knew how they’d meet.

The 2013-14 Annual Report is different. It states the basic facts under each section and dwells very slightly on the future course of the missions under development. I am not really sure how I feel with this change especially since they did the unthinkable in putting together and launching the Mars Orbiter Mission in record time.

I have had things weighing on my mind this whole year. This meant that I have not been that on top of space developments as I have been in the past. The Report, put together as a sort of summary of what happened in the 2013-14 period that it covers, hence make lovely reading for me but really bland reading for people already in the loop. The Report is a long series of things which just goes like, “This happened, this happened, this happened, and you know what, this happened too!”

Without further ado, let’s go through this report now, shall we?

I like to begin with the Space Transportation Systems section and begin with the GSLV Mk-III project. This three stage vehicle is now prepping for a passive cryogenic stage flight carrying the Human Spaceflight Crew Module on top to test the design of the whole stack. ISRO has never done this before – flown a mission without a payload – since each launch cost so much. However, the string of failures that the GSLV Mk-I and Mk-II saw has slowed the approach they’re taking with the Mk-III or LVM3 as they refer to it internally and presentations they make. The passive cryogenic stage means that the cryogenic stage does not actually fire whilst the giant twin S-200 and the liquid L-110s will fire and take the vehicle up to a certain height and the engineers will get valuable data that can be used to improve the design and fix flaws in the aerodynamics. I really loved this picture of the CE-20 cryogenic engine that is at the heart of the third stage of the LVM3 in the Report undergoing a hot test.


Image: The CE-20 cryogenic engine undergoing a hot test. Image Credit: ISRO. Image Source

Next, again in the Space Transportation Systems section is an eerie sounding title called “Pre-project Activities of the Human Spaceflight Programme”. The ISRO asked the Government for some money to put together the systems that would enable a human spaceflight programme. This section basically details on what happened under that head. The most interesting aspect for me in this are the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) and information related to tests for the Crew Escape Systems. CARE is expected to be on top of the LVM3 experimental flight I talked about above. This is an important test because it gives us crucial indications as to what the Crew Module can handle during an atmospheric re-entry or to put it bluntly, if humans inside it can survive an atmospheric re-entry. I am not really in favour of mingling this along with LVM3-X and think ISRO is trying to do too many things at once.

5HSP-CMImage: The Crew Module undergoing a test. Image Credit: ISRO. Image Source

ISRO loves indecipherable précis. Pray, expand on this? “Functioning of newly developed Head-end Mounted Safe Arm (HMSA) for solid motors in Crew Escape System was successfully demonstrated.” The work with parachutes with tests conducted in Chandigarh and Agra is interesting and I wish ISRO shares more of these on its Facebook and Twitter sites. With pictures, please!

I really need to read up on this LVM3-X flight. I think I’ve not really understood it well. Under the GSLV Mk-III section, it does not make mention of the Crew Module flight during the LVM3-X flight whereas the section above does. Hmm!

If you wander to the Space Sciences and Planetary Research section, the section on the Mars Orbiter Mission piqued my interest but ended in disappointment. The section is a nice synopsis of what’s happened so far. No looking at the future. No mention of a future/planned Mars mission. The mission does deserve kudos for its achievement thus far and I think the section does not do it any justice. The section on Chandrayaan-II is more interesting. This is the section in which the marked toning down of ISRO’s Reports becomes most glaringly visible. Earlier reports were talking of Chandrayaan III or even IV by 2015. This Report only marks the parting of ways with Roscosmos and the tough job of developing a lunar lander that lies ahead of ISRO. It does not even offer a guess at the possible launch time-frame, though news reports have been pushing it further and further into the future. Pendulum swings! They’ve now got their launch vehicle – the GSLV Mk-II. They’re working on the orbiter and rover since they were working with Russia. The parting of ways on the project means that they had to rework the project with an Indian lander.

Chandrayaan 2 rover mobility test
Image: Chandrayaan-II Rover undergoing mobility test under reduced gravity conditions. Image Credit: ISRO. Image Source

The Audit Observation section also has an important paragraph on Edusat, India’s effort at tele-education. Whilst ISRO has been at pains to make this into a success, the CAG seems to report that the planning was bad and basically all the ground infrastructural network did not come up as expected. As the network developed, the satellite idled with no useful function. By the time the network on ground developed, the satellite seems to have given up waiting. I also think that similar criticism can be levelled at ISRO for its planetary projects to Mars and the Moon. Chandrayaan-II seems to be coming almost a decade after it’s predecessor launched and there is no mention of the next Mars mission at all.

Annual Reports usually make drab reading except for people who follow intently. Earlier, ISRO has gone overboard with planning and now seems to be extra shy thanks to all that it wasn’t able to achieve as promised. I think the Report needs to strike a healthy balance of information on the projects undertaken in the year and a glance at what’s coming in the future, especially if it is exciting.

ISRO on Social Media Misrepresentations

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on December 17, 2013 as per the permalink. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

Update: ISRO posted this on their Facebook page earlier on Tuesday which seems to imply that they’re planning to expand their presence on Facebook and Twitter. If true, these fake profiles seem to have done more for public outreach than India’s space enthusiasts have achieved thus far. Kudos to the people behind the fake profiles!

I have congratulated ISRO’s social media presence with respect to the Mars Orbiter Mission. Their official page is linked to from the ISRO website. This press release tells me that ISRO is yet to understand social media much like many Indians, myself included.

There have been a multitude of unofficial ISRO accounts on the agency as well as it’s various missions, ostensibly trying to ape similar efforts by NASA. These may be well meaning individuals trying to inform the world about ISRO through a channel it is not present on using information from ISRO press releases and news stories. I myself did this when Chandrayaan 1 launched in 2008.

The critical difference, in my opinion, is being open about the fact that the account or the page is not an official ISRO page. I did so on my Chandrayaan 1 representation.

I think one does not go after these people with a legal notice. At least, not until one has sent them a warning.

Indian Perspectives on Human Spaceflight

Dr. Harish, Deputy Project Director, Human Spaceflight Programme, ISRO spoke at Aero India 2011 held recently in Bangalore. The title of this article made me excited enough to want to watch it.

However, after watching the video, it was quite general. His talk was very non-specific and did not have much matter. Some points though involved the choice of the Soyuz style architecture for the crew vehicle based on the Shuttle vs Soyuz experience and safety record of the US and Russia respectively. He talked about how humans would control the flight very mysteriously without expanding on it. He explained that the experience with the Space Capsule Re-entry Experiment (SRE) gave ISRO the confidence to go ahead with the human spaceflight programme. He put across that putting an air conditioning on the SRE would give us the crew vehicle – which is a rather crude way of putting it. He talked about how experience of Apollo management style has influenced India and last but not the least he explained that there is excessive stress on safety.

I do not think that a keen follower of the programme would have missed anything if he did not listen to this talk. However, if you have the time or the inclination, feel free to go through the video. I would like to stress again that Indian scientists and engineers need to get much better at communicating to the common man what they’re doing.

Talk by R Navalgund

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on March 01, 2011. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

I went to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) on Monday to hear the National Science Day Public Lecture organised by TIFR and the TIFR Alumni Association. The talk was delivered by Ragunath Navalgund, Director, Space Applications Center, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

At the welcoming address, the TIFR Director gave us a brief about how the day, February 28 had come to being celebrated as National Science Day. He said it was the day that C V Raman had submitted the manuscript which talked about the Raman Effect for the first time. The discovery of the Effect gave Raman a Nobel Prize and is still one of the most renowned discovery by an Indian scientist. He said further that Raman used to give public talks on science in a manner which was understandable to the general public. This is perhaps one of the first examples of science outreach by an Indian scientist. The day was later adopted by the Government of India to be called National Science Day. At TIFR, the day was celebrated by lectures from prominent alumni members.

R Navalgund then gave the Director a copy of the lunar atlas with pictures from the Chandrayaan-I spacecraft. I was thinking of nicking it!

Navalgund began his talk titled, “Remote Sensing of the Earth and the Moon” by talking about remote sensing in general. He defined it and explained how it was different from “seeing with our eyes”. He explained the difference as being sensing in various wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum other than just visible light like our eyes. The results are in the form of data sets which are then converted into images. He explained that remote sensing was done from various platforms – low-Earth orbit and geo-stationary orbits depending on their applications.

He moved on to various types of sensing – active and passive and then explained the various techniques of remote sensing. He showed the push-broom type, the pixel-by-pixel type, the synthetic aperture radar and the hyperspectral imaging.

He talked about how various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum could be studied in individual bands interacted with objects on the ground and how these could help in providing useful information. As an example, he talked about studying leaves with red light and near infra red light to understand if leaves were healthy or mature. This data helped in providing the Government a plausible estimate of the healthy plants in the country well before the harvesting period. Similar studies were done in various spectrum for hydrology, cryosphere, forest cover, atmosphere and oceans to provide similar information. Information involved ground water levels, forest covers, smogs, possible fishing zones, crop health prediction and yield.

He then moved on to the remote sensing of the Moon. He showed the various types of craters and features like the central peaks of craters and impact melts. He also showed pictures from the recently discovered lava tube.

The interesting points though came out in the question and answer session. Answering questions by students from Kendriya Vidyalaya, Navalgund came out with quite a few interesting points that were unknown. Speaking on India’s participation in the International Space Station (ISS), he said that there was an informal agreement on the possibility of India conducting experiments on the ISS. He said that the discussions were currently on in this regard. The experiments, he said, would relate to the study of green house gases. He said Indian institutions would have to provide a proposal for these experiments and some would also come from within ISRO. Answering another question on the Human Spaceflight Programme, he said that all the designs, approvals and paper work was done. The Programme had got an in-principle nod from the Indian cabinet. Discussions were currently on as to how to implement the programme. The two ideas included doing the testing in a single shot or testing the elements individually as done with Space Re-entry Experiment (SRE). He said the programme was in this phase currently. Answering a question I posed, he shocked me by saying that data from the Terrain Mapping Camera (TMC) and Hyper Spectral Imager (HySI) have been made available online. Srinivas found the website for me, it is here. Navalgund explained that the images were released only after 1 year to aid the investigations done by principal investigators who were the primary users of the data. He said that NASA had separately released the data from the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3). On Mars, Navalgund said that the plans were currently in drawing board phase and currently, India only had capability to do a flyby or orbiter programme indigenously.

My friend, Srinivas asked the question about why India’s CHACE instrument was not given the credit for the lunar water discovery as much as M3 or even Mini-SAR. Navalgund replied that the instrument did have a short operation span and did find spectrum peaks for water, carbon dioxide and other elements. He said a lot of time was spent on calibrating the data properly. This was a long drawn process which possibly led to the CHACE losing out on the credit for the water discovery.

I also met a member of the newly joined Google Lunar X Prize team, Team Indus at the lecture.

Madhavan Nair’s comments in the Media

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on February 22, 2011 as per the time stamp. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

Madhavan Nair has recently been on a commenting and interviewing spree. The bulk of his effort seems to be deflect blame from ISRO on two recent events – the failure of the GSLV and the ISRO/DEVAS deal. His comments on the failure of the GSLV seem a little out of line. His comments on the ISRO/DEVAS deal could be considered as an effort to deflect blame from himself. Whatever the case, his media interactions since the GSLV failure has been interesting to follow.

I have never seen a chair of any failure analysis committee commenting on the progress of the committee as the analysis was on-going. Madhavan Nair seems to be repeating the same statement since the first meeting held in January. He’d begun pointing to the Russian cryogenic engine for the failure of the GSLV in December. This changed from the “German connectors” blamed initially for the failure. The interesting point about this repeated statement is that while Russia is willing to “studying the data provided to them”, Madhavan Nair seems to be stressing on this point. Also, ISRO seems to be conducting experiments and we’re running dangerously close to the last date for the submission of the report of the GSLV Failure Analysis Committee under the chairmanship of Madhavan Nair. I would think a meeting would be needed to get the results, analyse them and create a cohesive report. Madhavan Nair’s various comments [see here and here] to the media vis-a-vis the GSLV seems to be beyond the control of ISRO.

His other interesting comment comes on ISRO/DEVAS issue. I have refrained from commenting on the issue here since my understanding of the same has been very poor. Madhavan Nair did an interview with the Times of India on the issue. His version of the story matches more closely with the version put out by DEVAS than by ISRO. This has now pushed the Opposition to demand that the Prime Minister (who’s in-charge of the Department of Space) to make a statement in Parliament on the issue. Madhavan Nair’s comments carry weight because he was the man in-charge in ISRO when the deal was operationalised. It seems like Nair is trying to protect himself. It even seems to have worked partially since the Opposition has turned its attention again from him.

While on the topic of ISRO/DEVAS, I’d also like to point out the different approaches that ISRO and DEVAS have taken to put out their statements. ISRO has put out a 5 page PDF (now removed!!) that is a bit confusing and leaves a few questions un-answered and DEVAS has posted a video in a FAQ format that lasts about 4 minutes.