Bangalore: The Indian Space Research Organisation, or Isro, has made a name for itself in the global arena, adding another feather in its cap by launching 10 satellites using a single rocket on 28 April. Though the agency has focused mainly on launching weather and communication satellites, its chairman Gopalan Madhavan Nair, 65, who is also the secretary of India’s department of space, said in an interview to Mint that Isro plans much more in the next two decades, including scientific missions to the moon and Mars, and a manned space mission, even as it doubles the number of communication and earth observation satellites at the same time. Edited excerpts:
After launching 10 satellites at one go, what does Isro intend to do next?
We are now preparing for the Chandrayaan-1 mission, in which we will send a rocket to go round the moon and map its surface. All the instruments have arrived, the integration process has started and will be completed in a few months. We are targeting a launch by the third quarter of this year. The trials are on at the deep space network (a 32m dish installed in Bangalore to receive moon mission data). After that we would launch GSLV (geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle) with an indigenous cryogenic engine. It would be on the launch pad by the end of the year.
What is special about the hyper-spectral camera sent on one of the 10 satellites launched recently?
It is a useful instrument. Earlier, due to technology limitations, we had only four spectral bands, but this new camera will give us 64 bands and also provide an
opportunity to study situations, such as the onset of diseases on crops, drought conditions, and types of pollutions in lakes, rivers and sea. It is going to be a powerful tool for the future. Right now, it is in the technology demonstration stage. There is a large volume of data that comes from it and we have to identify how it has to be handled. That is being attempted, but I am sure that in the next few years or so, we will have operational satellites with hyperspectral cameras.
Mission space: G. Madhavan Nair, chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation.
Critics say that the data Isro generates from these satellites is not being utilized effectively.
It is changing. The volume of sales of National Remote Sensing Agency is a clear indicator of how this data is being put to use. Last year, we had a 50% increase in data sales. Many users are conscious of it and buy it at an economical cost. For research purposes, it is virtually free except for handling charges.
The Cartosat range (satellites with the ability to capture images of small areas of up to 1m on the earth’s surface) is going to tremendously help in mapping the entire country. If you have aircraft flying all over the region, at least half a dozen aircraft have to fly for 10 years (to accomplish the job), whereas we can do it in a year.
With high-resolution satellite images available commercially on the Internet, is there a need for India to invest in remote-sensing satellites?
It costs lot of money to get commercial satellite images from abroad. What you see on the Internet is something like a jpeg image, which does not have the details required for any application.
Suppose you have to buy the equivalent of Cartosat from abroad, you have to spend something like $16-20 (Rs659-824) for an image of every sq. km, whereas we sell at less than $7 per sq. km. This provides an opportunity for Indian users to widely make use of remote-sensing data for various applications. Today, we have effective tools — two high-resolution satellites and one close to high resolution, besides Resourcesat with multispectral imaging.
There are restrictions on the sale of high-resolution images in India. Do you think there is a need for a more flexible map policy for the country?
I think the map policy is very clear; it provides medium resolutions without any constraints. For high-resolution images, it needs to be processed for security clearances and takes a little bit of time, and of course, we would be removing some of the sensitive information, which they (buyers) do not need.
How have been the sales of Isro’s map data globally?
We already have 20% share of the global imaging market. We are selling images to the US, Europe, Brazil and all over the globe.
We are selling data from our satellites even to China.
But isn’t Isro yet to make significant headway in the global satellite launch market?
There have been a lot of enquires. Three or four of them are talking to us, both for small satellites of around 100kg and also large ones.
But we still have some constraints because of policies of some countries. That is a dampener.
Is US’ policy on not allowing American components to be flown on rockets launched by other countries including India a hurdle?
Yes. There have been interactions with the US government, but they treat it only on a case-by-case basis.
Would such restrictions impact Isro’s future?
We need not be worried because people are finding solutions around that. They build satellites without US components. Agile of Italy (whose satellite Isro launched in April) is an example where every item from the US was replaced with European ones.
The US government has criticized Isro, saying it has a dual role of an operator and a regulator.
See, today we are able to hold to the global price line for communication transponders because Isro is there. We are providing transponders at 50-60% of the cost of what a European or an American company offers. All such talk should best be ignored.
What has been the response to Isro’s policy of trying to involve private players in building satellites?
We have tried to involve the industry, but the response has not been satisfactory. There are small manufacturers who build subsystems based on our technology. But I do not see large players taking on the role of satellite builders.
Mainly, it needs long-term investment, facility, manpower and technology. You know Isro’s centres of excellence were built over 20 years of experience, which cannot be substituted overnight. People should have the patience to wait for opportunities. We have to more than double transponder numbers from the current 200 to around 500 by the end of 11th Five-Year Plan (which ends in 2012). The number of launches, which is around five a year, would more than double in this period.
Isro’s 11th Plan budget has tripled to Rs 45,000 crore and the bulk of it is supported by the government. Do you think at some point of time the budgetary support could reduce, and you can raise enough resources through commercial operations?
Whatever we are earning from Antrix Corp. Ltd (Isro’s commercial arm), it is going to the government and it is a unique model. In a hi-tech area as this, it is almost impossible to sustain without government support. The experience is same all over the world, whether it is National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) or European Space Agency. In fact, their budget comes almost exclusively from the government. As I mentioned, any investment will not produce returns tomorrow, and also it is very expensive to build new technologies. I think government support is necessary and will continue.
Isro has talked about building reusable launch vehicles (RLVs). What model are you adopting?
We have looked at various countries, how they have built RLVs. Finally, Isro has come out with a unique concept. We are going to have a first stage with a winged body, so that it will put a satellite in orbit and return, and a second stage, which would be like a space capsule that can land either in sea or on land. I understand that after so many years of research and investment, the US is also finalizing a similar concept.
At what stage is the programme?
Demonstrator work is progressing and it will be flying in two years. But the actual design of the RLV will start around 2010, and by 2025, it should be flying. It will be like a space transportation system to put cargo and come back.
There are already global private initiatives for space transportation. Do you think that at some point space agencies may give way to private players?
Actually, private operators (in the US) already work with Nasa. But what they are talking is of sub-orbital missions, not orbital missions. So, it is a long way to go. But it is a good initiative if we can find private capital for such R&D, and for commercial ventures.
What are the technology challenges for the manned space mission that Isro is planning for 2015?
We have to create an inhabitable environment in space. The design itself is a challenge. Life support system, heat shielding, all these call for a host of new technologies. Then comes the improvement in reliability of the launch vehicle.
Today, the accepted failure rate is one in 10, or 10%. We cannot accept such failure for a manned mission. We will have to go for an improved and reliable system. Once it is launched, we need to have an emergency release and escape system. You also need to train people.
Will you look at cooperating with other nations for manned missions?
I think if we can get cooperation, we could do it. But I don’t find any visibility on that at this moment. We have to develop our own, and prove our capability.