Up and Away

BY LEE HAN SHIH
May 04, 2009
*Special to asia!

In November 2003 India celebrated the 40th anniversary of its space programme. The celebration attracted little attention outside the country, even among space enthusiasts. Everyone else was too busy soaking up the implication of China’s first manned space flight, which was launched successfully in October and placed China as the third space power after the US and Russia.

Did it spur India to launch a manned flight of its own? No. In an interview with New Scientist, G Madhavan Nair, director of the Indian Space Research Organisation, is clear about the mandate for the ISRO.

“We are responsible for developing satellites for remote sensing, communications, meteorology and so on, and also to launch them with our own rockets,” he said.

Little known to the outside world, India now has the largest constellation of remote sensing satellites in the world. Its service is in demand globally for applications such as analysing vegetation and land use patterns. These are services that suit India well, as they do not require the costly one-metre resolution provide by commercial American satellites such as IKONOS.

India has developed its own expertise riding on US technology and secures valuable niches in the space business.

Images taken from Indian satellites, called IRS, are “great quality for the resolution”, said Gary Napier of Space Imaging, a Colorado company that owns IKONOS. Space Imaging also markets IRS images to complement its own higher-resolution but more expensive satellite images.

This brings in much needed income for ISRO. But the reliance on US technology, and US marketing know-how, has turned the agency into more or less an extension of NASA.

In fact, the latest talk among the space community is that NASA, itself facing a budget crunch, may outsource some of its space research activities and operations to ISRO. Dollar for dollar, ISRO is considered to be one of the most efficient and cost effective space agencies in the world. And it has worked long enough with the US government to be entrusted with sensitive military secrets.

The Indian space programme was born on November 21, 1963. A group of Indian scientists, all of whom were trained in the US, launched the country’s first rocket in Thumba. The rocket was small. It travelled only 200 metres into the sky before plummeting back to earth.

Nevertheless, it was a momentous occasion for India. Six years later, ISRO was created to develop space technology and its applications for various national tasks. And it has focused on remote sensing and telecommunications as its core strength. According to Madhavan Nair, his agency will launch 40 remote-sensing satellites between 2003 and 2008. India, Nair adds, can now put heavy satellites into orbits as high as 36,000 km (22,500 miles).

Focusing on unmanned space flights, however, does not mean ISRO and Nair are oblivious to the glory that comes with extraordinary achievements. Talk is that the agency is now planning to send a probe to the moon. Given its expertise, this could be done before 2010 and put India firmly in the ranks of spacefaring nations.

 

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lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.

 

Contact Han Shih