Satellites, an anti-satellite demo, a moon landing attempt, space firms winning big bucks — here’s the story of India in space in 2019

Looking back at the year India has had in space, the most vivid moments come to mind around the loss of signal with the Vikram lander, India's first attempt to land a spacecraft on the moon. The silence that descended in the Control Room and the anxious moments that followed only paved the way to more silence and suspense till the lander's debris was spotted in images taken by NASA's lunar orbiter close to three months later.

That said, India has had an eventful 2019 in space besides the Chandrayaan 2 mission. Here’s a look at all the achievements in the space sector in 2019 that lay the context for India in Space in the decade to come.

Modified PSLV Launches MicroSAT-R & KalamSAT To Orbit

ISRO began its journey of 2019 by launching the PSLV-C44 mission successfully. This mission saw innovations in the PSLV. They substituted the six boosters for just two boosters in the first stage of the PSLV, a configuration that ISRO calls PSLV-DL. This carried the Microsat-R mission. Although we didn’t know this in January, this satellite would have an important role to play in March.

ISRO also improved the fourth stage of the PSLV. It modified it so that the stage became a platform for short term space experiments. This stage usually stays in orbit with a little fuel before it decays and returns to Earth. ISRO decided to utilise this stage of the mission to serve as a platform for space experiments, instead of leaving the otherwise useless fourth stage to linger in orbit. KalamSAT played this role in the mission. KalamSAT only had what would be called the heart of a mission: its sensors; with power, attitude and communication responsibilities handled by the PSLV's fourth stage.

GSAT-31 in the middle of a centre of gravity test - Image: ISRO

In February, the action turned towards South America, from where the Ariane V put GSAT–31 in geostationary orbit. The satellite is a replacement for the INSAT–4CR launched in 2007 onboard the GSLV Mk I. INSAT–4CR itself was built and launched a year after the launch failure of the INSAT–4C, which found itself in the Bay of Bengal.

INSAT–4CR itself had to use a lot of its own fuel to reach its designated orbit. India then had to rely on Arianespace for providing launches while it fixed the design of its cryogenic engine. This cryogenic engine technology was denied to it by Russia, under pressure from the USA.

Interestingly, India is said to have earned in the whole year — launching small satellites for other countries — what Arianespace earned in one single launch, which usually puts two geostationary satellites in orbit at a time.

Mission Shakti Creates A Stir

The Prithvi Defence Vehicle (PDV), which was modified for used in the March anti-satellite demonstration, is designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles in the ex-atmosphere area, which is 50 km above the atmosphere. Image: AP

In March, attention was focussed on the ASAT test (Anti-SATellite) codenamed Project Shakti. A Prithvi Defence Vehicle Mk II was launched on 27 March 2019 from Abdul Kalam Island. The mission demonstrated India’s anti-satellite capabilities, entering India into an elite club comprising the USA, Russia, and China, whilst also raising international concern about the creation of space debris.

The DRDO Chairperson assuaged concerns raised by the international community stating that the debris would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up within 45 days. However, several international satellite watchers claim that debris from the destroyed Microsat-R satellite is still in orbit.

An excited crowd at the launch viewing gallery in SHAR, Sriharikota on 22 July 2019 at the launch of Chandrayaan 2, India's second lunar mission. Image courtesy: The Planetary Society

ISRO, meanwhile, opened the Launch View Gallery, a 10,000-seat semi-stadium like structure from where members of the public could watch rocket launches.

Before this, space enthusiasts would camp at various points near Pulicat Lake to catch the launches from Sriharikota. This Gallery provides better service, at least for members of the lay public and students, helping them catch the launch from Sriharikota.

EMISAT And ExseedSat-2 Launched To Orbit 

In April, ISRO returned to flight with the PSLV-C45 mission from Sriharikota. Here, the PSLV configuration of the first stage was changed again to launch with four strap-on motors attached. ISRO calls this it’s PSLV-QL configuration.

This was also when the PSLV placed customer satellites into three designated orbits. The mission’s primary payload, EMISAT, was developed by DRDO to keep a watch on the enemy’s electromagnetic footprint along the border.

ExseedSAT, the first Indian private satellite launched on a SpaceX rocket during its developmental phase awaiting a 'bake test' in a thermovac chamber. Image courtesy: Twitter/Sanjay Nekkanti

PSLV’s fourth stage carried Exseed Space’s ExseedSat–2, which was developed and tested within one week. Exseed Space flew this payload for the first time with the Indian launched PSLV. It had made its debut launch, ExseedSat–1, with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in December 2018.

Indigenous Radar Imaging Tech Put To Test With RISAT-2B

In May 2019, ISRO continued with the launch of the PSLV-C46 mission. The launch put into orbit India's RISAT–2B.

The satellite is a radar imaging satellite which will provide service in agriculture, forestry and disaster management. It was the first launch that members of the public could also witness from the newly opened launch gallery.

The major achievement for ISRO on this launch was the indigenous development of the radial ribbed antenna structure for radar imaging. Its development abroad would have cost India time — about 3–4 years — which would have delayed the replacement for RISAT–2, which was launched in 2008 soon after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. The radar technology was imported from Israel.

An International Dialogue On India's Space Policy

Aside from this, the 5th Kalpana Chawla Policy Dialogue was held in New Delhi in May. This focussed attention on the need to have a comprehensive space policy for India. The Department of Space has various policies governing remote sensing and utilising the existing transponder capabilities of Indian satellites launched by ISRO.

A policy with unity of vision and application is needed, however.

ISRO has also partnered with various medium and small enterprises to help it build its rockets and satellites. However, these have not grown and developed into full scale developers of rocket or satellite sub-systems. Many new companies, called NewSpace companies, are entering the markets and seek to provide services using the application of satellite data or by building whole satellites or rockets themselves.

While the 2017 Draft Space Policy Bill tabled is considered an encouraging step, it seems to lack the unifying spirit that is sought by the players in the market, and provides clear direction and vision in the application of space policy in India.

New Space India Limited Launches; Bellatrix Aero Bags $3 Million In Funding

Chairman and managing director of Antrix Corporation Rakesh Sasibhushan (L), president of the French AeroSpace company (CNES) Jean-Yves Le Gall (2L), space scientist and chairperson of ISRO Dr Kailasavadivoo Sivan (2R), and chairman of Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), Kris Gopalakrishna (R) inaugurate the 6th Bengaluru Space Expo (BSX) on 6 September 2018. Image: Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty

The Government of India announced the creation of a new commercial firm in June 2019. The mandate for the company, called New Space India Ltd (NSIL), seems fairly similar to that of Antrix Corporation, which started out in 1992. It has booked flights for foreign customers on-board the 50th flight of the PSLV. It is also expected to book flights of the currently-under-development Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) in the near future.

Rohan Ganapathy and Yashas Karanam’s company, Bellatrix Aerospace, is the first private company to secure a development order from ISRO for their water-powered electric propulsion system, which drastically cuts launch costs for satellites. Image: Magzter "Preparing for lift off"

In the same month, Bellatrix Aerospace, also seeking to build privately designed and launched launch vehicles, raised about $3 mn from the likes of Deepika Padukone, which got it more than its usual share of coverage in the media.

GSLV-MkIII Primed For Chandrayaan-2 

Media attention returned to ISRO in July 2019. Preparations were afoot in Sriharikota for the first mission of the GSLV Mk III after three development flights. The rocket also carried a payload that had many talking about India’s second mission to the Moon.

Efforts to partner with Russia on a mission failed after Russia backed out in 2014. ISRO then reorganised itself and decided to do this one on its own.

In September, action turned towards the Moon. The country followed updates from ISRO as the orbiter circularised its orbit around the Moon, the lander and orbiter module separated and the lander module began a set of manoeuvres that would put it on the lunar surface. India and the world waited with bated breath as the lander automatically performed manoeuvres, and claps and sighs of relief were felt with each major milestone.

India's Vikram Lander Crashes On The Moon

In the final minutes of the Vikram lander's descent, things went awfully wrong. It was believed that the lander had crash landed on the lunar surface. Efforts were kept on over the next few days to hail the lander. Emotions ran high with the nation watching unprecedented scenes of the Prime Minister consoling a distraught ISRO Chairman.

Over the next few days, news leaked that the lander was spotted but was in a tilted position. NASA’s Deep Space Network tried to contact the lander on the lunar surface. Three months later, news would emerge that a techie from Chennai had used images released by the NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) team to spot the debris of the lander near the landing site.

Vikram lander's ejecta as seen be LRO's camera. Image: NASA

ISRO Chairman put out a statement the next day that they had spotted the lander on the day after the crash. It seems both space enthusiasts and media outlets somehow missed this news.
Kawa Space brings in new funding

In September, Kawa Space raised an undisclosed amount from PayTM founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma. Kawa Space provides space as a service, without one requiring to have their own satellites.

ISRO's CARTOSAT-3 Launched To Orbit

ISRO certainly ended the year on a high. ISRO flew the PSLV-C47 mission in November. This was ISRO’s fiftieth PSLV launch and the seventy-fifth launch from Sriharikota. The launch put into orbit Cartosat–3, which was the third generation agile advanced satellite that provided a much needed update for India’s remote sensing satellite constellation. It also placed into orbit about 13 satellites based on an agreement with the newly formed New Space India Ltd.

A few days later, the PSLV flew again from Sriharikota. This launch — PSLV-C48 — carried the RISAT–2BR2. This also carried the same radial ribbed antenna that flew on the RISAT–2B.

Dhruva Space Raises Rs 5 Cr; ISRO Gets Rs 33 Cr To Build Netra

In the investment rounds in the month, Dhruva Space raised Rs 5 Cr from the Mumbai Angels Network. Dhruva Space makes small satellites.

Sanjay Nekkanti and Narayan Prasad are the two founders of Dhruva Space, who met in 2010 when they were among the 10 Indians chosen to be part of the coveted Erasmus Mundus SpaceMaster program.

ISRO also got Rs 33 Cr to build Netra (Network for Space Objects, Tracking, and Analysis) for tracking space objects. This would play an important role in making India situationally aware about what’s happening in space.

What's In Store For India In Space In 2020?

As we move into the New Year, we are looking at a mix of expected updates to India’s satellite and launch vehicle fleet.

The SSLV is expected to make two experimental launches from Sriharikota. In the first flight, the SSLV will be carrying a military payload. On the second flight, it is likely to carry a commercial payload for BlackSky Global. NSIL has already put out brochures advertising SSLV in December 2019.
A model of ISRO's SSLV Rocket

India's GSAT-30 will fly in January, and is expected to replace satellites in the existing Indian communication satellite constellation. In the same vein, GISAT, RISAT, Oceansat flights are also expected to replace and enhance India's remote sensing capabilities in 2020.

Aditya-L1, India’s first solar mission, is also expected to fly in 2020.

The Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD) is expected to test it’s landing capability in the coming year. 2020 will also see launches by the GSLV series as it returns to flight, and is expected to take over launches to geostationary orbit for which India currently (partly) depends on Arianespace.

A prototype of the Reusable Launch Vehicle-Tech Demonstration (RLV-TD) lifts off from a launchpad in Sriharikota in May 2016 in what would be a successful flight test of the technology

In the decade starting 2020, my hopes are that ISRO continues developing technologies, testing them and putting India on the map where space technologies are concerned. I hope we build on our indigenous capabilities, support commercial pursuits in space and do many more missions that capture the imagination of the next generation of space scientists and entrepreneurs.

Godspeed, India.