National effort needed for making advanced materials for space missions: ISRO chief

The agency calls for national R&D efforts to make crucial components for the mission

For the first time, India's space agency is planning to put an Indian astronaut for seven days in space at a cost less than Rs 10,000 crore as part of its manned mission by 2022, ISRO chairman K Sivan said on 15 August.

The Human Space Program or 'Gaganyaan' as referred to by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has received global attention since then and described as the space agency's 'turning point' by former ISRO chief, K Radhakrishnan.

Sivan said, "We are in the process of developing some of the technologies and already have some. Our idea is to develop everything within India," when speaking to press.

According to him, ISRO has life support technologies in place and has already tested the crew module and crew escape systems.

In a recent address at the 37th Annual Brahm Prakash memorial lecture, Sivan said that the future space program requires a 'national effort' — particularly so for the advanced materials that the mission requires.

In the lecture organised by the Indian Institute of Metals and the Indian Institute of Science, Sivan called out to manufacturers of high-propulsion systems across the country, and announced ISRO's keen interest in seeking materials like beryllium alloys, aluminium and carbon nanotubes, which have extraordinary properties required by launch vehicles and other applications.

The technology, he said, will also be useful in developing Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLVs), capsules for the crew's re-entry, the fuel-saving and air-breathing scramjet missions, and distant single-stage launch vehicles in addition to the Human Space Program.

Sivan added that sourcing the advanced materials required for these missions locally would help lower costs of having them imported.

Fully Integrated GSLV-F08 inside the Vehicle Assembly Building. Image: ISRO

A glimpse of the fully-integrated GSLV-F08, ISRO's expendable launch vehicle, inside the vehicle assembly building. Image courtesy: ISRO

In the past, ISRO has sourced many resources from local industries: maraging steel alloys; a temperature-resistant niobium-hafnium alloy called Niobhat; aluminium composites; chemical requirements and temperature-resistant coatings among many more.

Sivan added that while these resources met the needs of the ISRO's missions so far, the human space program will require a much larger — national — effort to develop advanced material like carbon-carbon composites and special electronic material. These, Sivan explains, are investments that will also propel smaller projects and launches in the future.

“Lab-level R&D can produce small quantities of special materials... we want the industry to come forward and produce them in large quantities,” Sivan was quoted to have said to the Hindu. “Materials are the heart of any space programme. Without advancements in them we cannot keep it going.”

Much of the material research ISRO conducts comes from researchers developing metals, ceramics, and electronics at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre's rocket development centre in Thiruvananthapuram.

One of the agency's biggest success stories from indigenous partnerships is its tech-transfer for titanium sponges to Kerala Metals and Minerals in 2006, which erased an estimated import of 200-300 tonnes annually and lowered ISRO's cost enough to create a surplus supply in the country.

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