Narayan PrasadOct 07, 2019 07:54:17 IST
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chief Dr Sivan, in a recent press conference, announced the space agency’s plans to set up its own space station. The announcement comes as an intent to sustain the capabilities and the capacity being built in the country as a part of the Gaganyaan mission, the indigenous human spaceflight programme.
ISRO has planned to carry out two unmanned flights and one manned flight with a three-member crew coinciding with the eve of the 75th Independence anniversary of India.
Constructing a space station after being able to safely orbit a crew in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is a natural progression that many advanced space-faring countries have pursued to expand their space capabilities. The announcement by ISRO also falls in line with such a progression. Beyond the intent to establish a space station, the ISRO chief provided an estimated time frame of 5-7 years post the Gaganyaan programme to realise the space station. The ISRO Chief did not provide any further details on the size of the space station or the budget allocations needed to realise such a mission.
The timing of the announcement comes at an interesting period in the international context, as the future of the current International Space Station (ISS) – a collaborative effort of several space-faring nations such as the United States, Russia, European Union, Japan and Canada – is uncertain beyond 2024 due to concrete funding commitments.
At the same time, after the Chinese single-module Tiangong-1 space station launched in September 2011 to test crewed visits and technologies re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere last year, they are preparing to launch a three-module space station starting 2020.
ISRO's Gaganyaan programme will establish mature capabilities in India: having a human-rated rocket, the ability to train crew and the capacity to sustain life and safety of the crew on orbit and return them. The major technical leap required to establishing a space station beyond simply having these capabilities is in the ability to also carry larger payloads into space and achieving the ability to precisely rendezvous and dock spacecrafts to a space station in orbit. This will allow scaling up of infrastructure on orbit – a must to provide more room for astronauts to live and carry out experiments over longer time frames.
Therefore, one should expect that ISRO’s project proposal for such a space station will primarily consist of a plan to upgrade the payload carrying capacity of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (which is going to carry Indian astronauts into space as a part of Gaganyaan) by a considerable magnitude.
In 2017, ISRO was awarded a project to research spacecraft rendezvous and docking and is planning to launch two small spacecraft to test the technology in space. These foundations should provide leverage to further carry out larger scale and precision experiments in space to cement the know-how required for human-rated vehicle transfers in orbit.
From a budgetary standpoint, Dr Sivan mentioned that the project proposal that shall estimate the cost for India’s space station shall be made after the Ganganyaan project for the approval from the government. This is where the architecture of the space station will drive the willingness of the taxpayer to foot the bill. To contrast this internationally, the ISS spreads as long as a football field and costs $3 billion (~₹20,000 crore) for NASA alone in maintenance cost a year and has exceeded more than 10 years and $100 billion (~₹6,50,000 crore) in assembling it. In contrast, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 is only the size of a school bus was purposed to function for only two years.
The ISS is permanently crewed while the Tiangong-1 had a limited objective to test both crewed and robotic rendezvous and docking missions. The crewed missions to Tiangong-1 was only limited to 12 days. It is difficult to put an exact estimate to the cost of the Tiangong-1 mission since no authentic public sources are available. However, it is safe to conclude that the architecture of the space station, as well as the ambition of Tiangong-1, puts the cost of the mission to be at least 15-20 times cheaper to be that of the ISS.
To keep the cost as a smaller multiple of the Gaganyaan project and not an order of magnitude increase, ISRO could well choose such strategies to limit the architecture of the space station and the goals to be achieved on orbit. It is more likely that the initial project proposal of India’s space station may have very similar objectives that Tiangong-1 tried to achieve. As far as speculating the timing of approving such a project by the government is concerned, one could learn from the timing of the approval of the Gaganyaan mission itself. It may be likely that the approval for India’s space station may come in the 2023 – 2024 timeframe.
The author is a space industry expert, curator of NewSpace India, a networking community for space-related developments in India.