Mars and more, final frontier

Published Dec 29, 2013, 6:59 pm IST
Updated Jan 10, 2016, 8:38 am IST
The major event of 2014 will be when we put the Mars Orbiter in orbit around the Red Planet on September 24

If 2013 was important because we launched the first navigational satellite (IRNSS) and later the Mars Orbiter Mission, the second one almost coinciding with the Golden Jubilee of our space programme, 2014 will be a year of big strides as we start with the flight of the GSLV with an indigenous cryogenic engine and go on to achieve major milestones. Undoubtedly, the major event of the year will be when we put the Mars Orbiter in orbit around the Red Planet on September 24.

But before we do that, we have planned the first experimental flight of GSLV Mark III in March-April 2014. This launch vehicle will make the difference for our space programme — by making Isro self-reliant in the launch of heavier satellites of the INSAT class, weighing four tonnes. It will also enhance the capability of the country to be a competitive player in the global commercial launch market. The GSLV Mark III is designed as a three-stage vehicle. The first stage comprises two identical S200 Large Solid Boosters, or LSB, with 200 tonnes of solid propellants, and strapped on to the second stage, the L-100 re-startable liquid stage with 110 tonnes of liquid propellant. It is one of the heaviest earth-storable liquid engines ever developed by Isro. The third stage is the high-power 12-tonne thrust cryogenic stage with 25 tonnes of propellant. It uses a gas generator cycle as compared to a staged combustion cycle used in GSLV D5. All the elements of the stage have been tested separately. We expect to have two developmental flights of GSLV Mark III, with the first one likely by 2016. During the developmental phase, this vehicle will launch satellites weighing 3.5 to four tonnes.


For the experimental flight, we will use a passive cryogenic stage as the engine will not be ignited. The solid strap-ons and two solid stages have been tested. Aerodynamically, the vehicle is different from the GSLV-D5, and it will be tested during the crucial atmospheric phase. It will be a sub-orbital mission, but nearly 1,000 measurements of the vehicle will be done. It is also an opportunity for characterisation of the crew module (to be used for the human space flight in the years to come) and the thermal flux during the re-entry phase. The crew module will be three meters in diameter, and different from the space capsule which was designed for the recovery experiment in 2007. Along with the crew module, we are developing the escape system for the crew and the space suits, as we have to demonstrate these technologies before we attempt the human space flight mission.

For the Mars mission, we have three more opportunities for correction of the orbit before the spacecraft reaches the sphere of influence of the Red Planet on September 22. The instruments onboard will be tested before it reaches the sphere of influence. Two days later, it will make its first orbit around Mars. One by one, all the payloads will be switched on based on inputs from our scientific community. The data from NASA’s Maven will complement data from our orbiter, so our scientists will get an opportunity to compare them during their studies.

The other major milestone we look forward to in 2014 is the launch of four Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS) satellites in addition to the one launched in 2013, which means we can start operating the system as the receivers will be available in the market. The satellite payloads will consist of atomic clocks and electronic equipment to generate the navigation signals. The ground segment of the IRNSS constellation will consist of a Master Control Center (MCC), ground stations to track and estimate the satellites' orbits and ensure the integrity of the network (IRIM), and additional ground stations to monitor the health of the satellites with the capability of issuing radio commands to the satellites (TT&C stations). The MCC will estimate and predict the position of all IRNSS satellites, calculate integrity, makes necessary ionospheric and clock corrections and run the navigation software. In pursuit of a highly independent system, an Indian Standard Time infrastructure will also be established. So, we will employ the PSLV not only to launch these four satellites but also for the commercial launch of SPOT-7 and its co-passengers during the year.

We will achieve another milestone with the commissioning of the Semiconductor Lab at Chandigarh, and that facility will roll out the first set of chips in 2014. 

We will also focus on fabrication of Astrosat satellite and the crucial lander for Chandrayaan-2. Development of the lander is a big challenge as we have to include the hazard avoidance system onboard so that it steers the lander to the right spot on the Moon. The lander will make all the difference for Chandrayaan-2 with five engines built in to reduce the speed of the lander. All the instruments onboard will be indigenous compared to the original plan when the Russian lander would have given us just one or two instruments.

(Dr K. Radhakrishnan is Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation)