India's year in space: ISRO's big wins in 2018, Gaganyaan 2022 and space startups

2018 has been a remarkably challenging, yet ultimately successful year for India’s space programme.

For India’s space programme, 2018 has been a remarkably challenging, yet ultimately a successful year.

ISRO has finally completed the NavIC constellation of 7 satellites in orbit for its regional navigation system, operationalised its heavy launch vehicle GSLV-Mk III, placed its heaviest ever satellite in geosynchronous orbit and has finally received the long-awaited political nod to proceed with a human spaceflight programme and with it introduced two new words in the international space lexicon: Gaganyaan and Vyomanaut. But the year did not start out that way.

Following a four-month pause, ISRO started 2018 with a successful launch of PSLV-C40 in January, placing a Cartosat-2 series satellite in orbit along with 30 other smaller satellites from a number of countries. In 2018, all but one has been successful.

IRNSS-1E await propellant-filling in a clean room at ISRO's Sriharikota facility. Image courtesy: ISRO

The PSLV-C39 mission in August 2017 to deliver IRNSS-1H for the NavIC constellation went well until the final step. The launch vehicle brought the satellite to the required point in space, but the payload fairing mechanism failed to open. IRNSS-1H will disintegrate while still trapped inside the fourth stage during re-entry in the coming months.

IRNSS-1H was a replacement for IRNSS-1A, on which all three rubidium clocks had failed, so could no longer reliably function as a navigation satellite. The replacement IRNSS-1I was launched successfully in April 2018, finally completing the NavIC constellation and giving India an independent satellite navigation capability, albeit a regional and not a global one.

An image captured by Cartosat-2 of BKC and the Mithi River in Mumbai on 18 February 2017, its first day of operation. Image: ISRO

An image captured by Cartosat-2 of the Bandra-Kurla Complex and Mithi River in Mumbai on 18 February 2017, its first day of operation. Image: ISRO

Despite a successful launch on 23 March of GSAT-6A, ISRO lost communication with it by 1st April. The fault was traced to a failure in the electrical system, and although ISRO is still tracking GSAT-6A and attempting to contact it, in the absence of two-way communication, GSAT-6A will be formally designated as a lost mission by the end of 2018. A replacement GSAT-32 is scheduled for launch in October 2019.

This incident raised concerns about GSAT-29, which was due to launch within weeks of GSAT-6A's. GSAT-29was returned to India from its launchpad in Kourou where it was being prepared for launch. Once back in Bangalore, ISRO engineers conducted checks to ensure it did not suffer a similar fate. GSAT-29 was eventually launched in November, and GSAT-11, on 5 December, both now operating from their intended orbits. The final launch of 2018 will be GSAT-7A, a communication satellite for the Indian Air Force in geosynchronous transfer orbit on 19 December.

ISRO successfully tested a Launch Escape System in July — a critical safety feature built into all launch systems used for human spaceflight and is equivalent to an ejector seat used by fighter pilots. Immediately prior to launch, a fully-fuelled rocket is an extremely dangerous environment, posing a heightened risk of fire and explosion. In an emergency, a small rocket at the very top of the launch vehicle is used to pull the crew capsule away and parachute down, to a safe distance a few kilometres away. India's first astronaut Rakesh Sharma, seven months prior to his own flight, saw with his own eyes the crew of Soyuz-10a saved from a launch pad inferno in September 1983. ISRO's Launch Escape System test lasted just over 4 minutes, safely pulling away a simulated crew capsule of 12.6 tonnes to a splashdown 2.9 kilometres away in the Bay of Bengal.

Perhaps the most strategically significant event this year was the independence day announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that India will launch its first mission with 2 or 3 crew to low Earth orbit of about 400 km for up to a week by 2022 or sooner. A new ISRO centre for Human Spaceflight is being established in Bangalore, headed by the experienced engineer Dr V R Lalithambika. In October, India signed an agreement with Russia to provide support including astronaut training for this initial mission. Ahead of the crewed launch, ISRO plans two uncrewed flights to test the capsule, environmental and life support systems as well as re-entry and recovery. The Gaganyaan mission is expected to cost $1.4 billion USD.

ISRO had a presence at this year's International Aeronautical Congress held in the northern German city of Bremen. In attendance at the Congress were the chairman K Sivan, director Dr V R Lalithambika, Scientific secretary to Chairman R Umamaheswaran and Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) director S Somnath.

Speaking in October, R Umamaheswaran, Scientific Secretary to the chairman, indicated that crew selection had not yet started for ISRO's manned space mission, Gaganyaan, but the likelihood of selecting a woman as part of the initial crew of vyomanauts was “very high”. Currently, ISRO has no plans for its human spaceflight programme beyond this initial mission. During the press conference at the International Astronautical Congress on 5 October in Bremen, ISRO chairman Sivan confirmed there were no plans for an Indian crewed mission to the Moon.

The single most critical mission in 2018 was the successful launch of GSAT-29 on ISRO's heavy launch vehicle GSLV-MkIII. GSAT-29 will make a critical contribution to the Digital India programme providing digital communication capacity from space. This was the second successful orbital flight of the GSLV-MkIII, which allowed ISRO to move GSLV-MkIII from a "development" status to "operational". Without an operational heavy launch vehicle, ISRO's plans for human spaceflight and the upcoming Chandrayaan-2 mission would have been uncertain. The GSLV-MkIII will also bring down India's reliance on Ariane V (soon Ariane VI) to launch its heavy (>2.5 ton) satellites.

Representatives from ISRO and NASA at the International Astronautical Congress 2018 (IAC2018). Image credit: IAC2018

Representatives from ISRO and NASA at the International Astronautical Congress 2018 (IAC2018). Image credit: IAC2018

Many countries around the world have seen a growth of companies in the private sector offering space services or products. Surprisingly, one of the leaders is China, after state restrictions were lifted in around 2014. The private sector in India has seen some limited growth too. Team Indus, the company that pulled out of their privately-funded lunar rover mission around this time last year is still around, and planning a lunar lander mission by 2020.

Mysore-based Bellatrix Aerospace is developing launch vehicles. Based in the Netherlands but with a strong connection to India, Satsearch is attempting to build an online portal for the global space supply chain. Exseed Space founded in Hyderabad is working on developing small satellites and with the help of SpaceX, placed the first privately-funded CubeSat from India in space earlier this month.

ISRO's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III D2 (or GSLV Mk3 D2) carrying the GSAT-29 communication satellite lifts off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Wednesday, 14 November 2018. Image credit: ISRO

ISRO’s strategic choices have been influenced by the regional power China. During the 1990s, India and China were on par, but China has established a significant lead since. Today, China has a total of 11 astronauts (first launched in 2003), experience of owning and retiring one space station with another on the way, its own GPS (Beidou) with 38 satellites, and one mission to the surface of the Moon under its belt with the second scheduled to land in early 2019.

ISRO's technical capability is not in question. It needs to increase engagement with the private sector and expand its launch capacity. It must incorporate innovations of 3D printing in building rocket engines, electric propulsion, reusable launch technology, in-orbit re-fuelling, exploit cloud computing, software designed networks and artificial intelligence when processing, storing and distributing Earth observation data.

ExseedSAT during its developmental phase awaiting a 'bake test' in a thermovac chamber. Image courtesy: Twitter/Sanjay Nekkanti

Exseed Space's ExseedSAT-1 during its developmental phase awaits a 'bake test' in a thermovac chamber. Image courtesy: Twitter/Sanjay Nekkanti

Compared to other space agencies, ISRO's commitment to public engagement is weak. Recent announcements for a visitors' centre in Sriharikota and space museums across India are welcomed. However, ISRO's presence on social media, inconsistently-designed and poorly-maintained websites, and the quality of its marketing material do not reflect the quality of the astonishing work it does.

ISRO's current annual budget of $1.4 billion is insufficient. ISRO should invest in its workforce, offer competitive salaries and provide additional high-end training. A boost in its budget is essential as is an organisational restructuring to a more disciplined system engineering model if ISRO is to achieve the goals it has set itself for science, interplanetary and human spaceflight missions in the 21st century.

The author is a space writer and author of The Indian Space Programme (2017) and Yuri Gagarin in London and Manchester (2011).

Here's a list of our other year-ender stories:

Best Camera phones of 2018: Pixel 3, Apple iPhone XS, Huawei Mate 20 Pro on top

Audio trends of 2018: Airpods, Alexa, Google Home, AI-powered speakers and more

2018 in Wildlife: Gir lions, 'man-eater' Avni, dead elephants echo drumbeats of doom

Best flagship phones of 2018: From Samsung Galaxy S9 to Poco F1 to OnePlus 6

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