• News
  • India's space programme looks beyond the Moon

India's space programme looks beyond the Moon

India convincingly demonstrated its capability for a deep space mission with the smooth insertion in November of its maiden lunar probe Chandrayaan-1 - launched in October - into a 100km (60 miles) orbit around the Moon.

For a developing nation that began its space journey with the test firing of a 9kg (20lb) sounding rocket from the fishing hamlet of Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram in November 1963, Chandrayaan-1 was success on a shoestring budget. With a cost of less then Rp4 billion ($83 million), Chandrayaan-1 is considered the most inexpensive lunar probe ever launched - its cost is nearly one-third of China's Chang'e-1 and one-sixth of Japan's Kaguya. "With a minuscule budget, we have mastered cutting-edge technology in space," says Indian Space Research Organisation chairman G Madhavan Nair.

Nair says Chandrayaan-1 is part of India's long-term vision. He believes Chandrayaan-1, with its "unique combination of payloads", will facilitate comprehensive mapping of the lunar surface for the first time.

Key objectives of Chandrayaan-1 include identifying and mapping mineral resources, looking for signs of ice water and confirming the presence of helium 3, a clean and green energy source. "The Indian Moon mission should be seen beyond the scientific results it provides. Studies have shown that the Moon could serve as a source of economic benefit to mankind and be of strategic importance," says M Annadurai, Chandrayaan-1 project director. ISRO says that Chandrayaan-1 is expected to complete the mapping of the Moon by the end of this year.

ISRO has initiated work on a Rp4.2 billion Chandrayaan-II mission set for launch in 2011-12 atop the three-stage Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle. The Indo-Russian Chandrayaan-II will feature a lander with a rover, which will be used to collect samples of lunar rocks and soil, subject them to chemical analysis and then transmit the data to the main orbiter.

 © ESA

Beyond Chandrayaan-II, India is looking at a "sample return mission to the Moon". Nair has said that "if we find mineral resources on the Moon, the next logical step will be to collect and bring them back to Earth". As this would need a massive lift-off rocket, ISRO would develop a semi-cryogenic launch vehicle working on refined paraffin and expected to be ready in six years. ISRO is also aiming for recoverable and reusable launch vehicles as part of its long-term strategy of making access to space affordable and routine.


Also on ISRO's agenda is a plan to launch a Mars orbiter. "More than the funding or the capacity to go to Mars, we are looking for good scientific proposals," says Nair. He has also spoken of a probe to Venus, even while ISRO plans to explore the asteroid belt. ISRO has a plan to land a spacecraft on an asteroid belt and send a probe to fly past a comet during the course of the next decade.

The Rp120 billion Indian manned mission is now a priority area for ISRO. An Indian spaceship with two or three crew members is planned to be launched into a 400km near Earth orbit by a GSLV-MkIII vehicle in 2015.

For Bangalore-based Antrix, the commercial arm of the Indian space programme, the successful launch of Chandrayaan-1 by an augmented version of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle promises more customers for its PSLV "cost-effective launch service". The PSLV has so far launched 30 satellites, including 16 from overseas. In April 2008, the PSLV set a record by launching 10 satellites in one go. Eight were nanosatellites, weighing from 3-16kg, from Canada, Europe and Japan.

Recent contracts won by Antrix include launching Algeria's Alsat-2A and Italy's IMSAT spacecraft on board PSLV in 2009. The company also has in hand contracts to launch a micro satellite from Singapore's Nanyang Technological University and Cubesat, a three-satellite package from the Netherlands, on the PSLV.

The launch of GSLV with an Indian upper cryogenic stage and GSLV-MkIII promises further commercial opportunities for Antrix. ISRO is planning a GSLV flight with an homegrown cryogenic engine - as a replacement for the Russian-supplied stage - this year.

Antrix, which has been supplying components and subsystems to global satellite builders, has also delivered the W2M satellite to Eutelsat, while sales of satellite images is a growth area for the company. Revenue from satellite data sales accounted for 10% of its turnover of Rp9.4 billion in 2007-8, with its market expanding beyond Europe and USA to include Australia and Russia. Asian and African countries now source remote sensing data from Antrix.

Since its inception, the focus of India's space programme has been on exploiting space technology to accelerate the pace of national development. With little outside assistance, ISRO has built an impressive base.

The remote-sensing Earth observation constellation is made up of seven satellites and the Insat communications constellation is composed of 11 spacecraft supporting activities including agriculture and resources exploration, fisheries, disaster management, weather forecasting and TV broadcasting. "Of our budget of less than $1 billion, 80% is being used for societal benefits," says Nair.


More than 400 village resources centres have been set up to provide rural communities with information on natural resources, land and water resources management, teleducation and telemedicine.

Using Insat, around 400 hospitals in remote and difficult to reach locations have been integrated into the telemedicine network. ISRO is also planning an exclusive satellite for boosting rural connectivity.

The success rate of water exploration schemes in India has risen by 50-80% following the use of satellite data. Similarly, a system for weather prediction and disaster warning is in place. A study by the Madras School of Economics says the Indian space programme generates $2 for every $1 spent.

However, ISRO's quest for deep space and manned missions is considered a dilution of its original philosophy.

In the 1960s, Vikram A Sarabhai, the architect of the Indian space programme, observed that "we don't have the fantasy of competing with economically advanced nations in the exploration of the Moon or planets or manned flights. But we are convinced that to play a meaningful role nationally and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society which we find in our country."

India's scientific community perceives this shift as a justifiable development in keeping with the nation's emergence as an economic power and a technological hub. Nair is quick to point out "as far as space is concerned, India is considered a developed country".

India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle carrying Chandrayaan-1 sits on its launch pad

Related Content