With restrictions now being eased as the outbreak ebbs, many of the planned launches which ISRO could not go ahead with in 2020 are likely to take place this year. The year 2020 was to be a busy year for the Indian Space Research Organisation, given that the agency was working on multiple challenging missions like Chandrayaan-3 and Gaganyaan.

However, as a result of the restrictions imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of the launches that ISRO had planned for 2020 were delayed. The disruption to ISRO’s functioning was so severe that it could launch only two missions this year — one in November and the other in December 2020.

With restrictions now being eased as the outbreak ebbs, many of the planned launches which ISRO could not go ahead with in 2020 are likely to take place this year. Here are five major launches ISRO may conduct in 2021:

1) First launch of Small Satellite Launch Vehicle

Small Satellite Launch Vehicle or SSLV, which has been in development for a few years now, is a three-stage launch platform capable of lifting up to 500 kilograms to the Low Earth Orbit and 300 kilograms to the sun-synchronous orbit.

At a time when major private players in the space sector are working on heavy launch platforms to carry humans and supplies to the Moon and beyond, ISRO has developed a small satellite launch platform for two reasons: one, capture the emerging market for small satellite launches and two, reduce to provide on-demand launch services and bring down the turn-around time, which will reduce the per kilogram launch cost.

The market for small satellites is growing at a fast pace. At least 328 weighing up to 600 kg, called Smallsats, were launched in 2018, a report by Bryce Space and Technology says. The number rose to 389 in 2019. This market is currently estimated to be around $3.6 billion and is likely to grow to over $15 billion by 2025. ISRO, already a significant player in the global satellite launch market, wants a part of this large pie. The first launch of the SSLV, which was earlier planned for late 2020, is likely to take place in the first few months of this year.

2) Chandrayaan-3

After Chandrayaan-2 lander, Vikram, made a hard landing on the surface of the moon in September 2019, ISRO had vowed to launch another lunar mission in 2020. However, due to the Covid-19-imposed restrictions and other delays, ISRO could not attempt a soft landing on the lunar surface in 2020.

While the Chandrayaan-3 mission will carry a lander and rover like in the Chandrayaan-2 programme, it will not have an orbiter as the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter and the scientific payloads it carried are functioning as desired.

Given that a date has not been announced by ISRO yet, it is clear that the launch will not take place in the first few months of 2021. However, like Chandrayaan-2, India’s second attempt to soft-land on the Moon could come, at the earliest, in the second half of 2021.

ISRO Chief K Sivan has said that the Chandrayaan-3 mission could be launched in late 2021 or early 2022.

3) Gaganyaan - Human Spaceflight Mission

While the launch of Gaganyaan crewed mission, which will be ISRO’s first human spaceflight, is not set for launch in 2021, some major developments linked to this programme are likely to take place this year.

Before the launch of the mission, under which a three-member crew will be sent to space for a period of five to seven days, two uncrewed flights have to be launched to test the systems required for ISRO’s maiden human spaceflight.

One of these two launches may take place this year. Flight test of the crew escape system by ISRO on 5 July 2018. Crew Escape System along with crew module soared skyward, and then floated back to Earth under its parachutes about 2.9 km from Sriharikota. 

In his new year message, ISRO Chief K Sivan said that “the first unmanned flight under the Gaganyaan Programme is...to be achieved this year”.

Earlier, the first unmanned mission was planned for December 2020.

This mission may face delays due to, among other things, the disruption in the training of the astronauts because of the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic.

4) X-Ray Polarimetry Satellite

X-ray Polarimeter Satellite or XPoSat is a satellite that ISRO plans to launch this year to measure polarisation of X-ray photons from 50 brightest known celestial sources. Sources include pulsars, X-ray binary stars and galactic cores.

X-ray polarisation measurements help understand the nature of their source, including strength and the distribution of magnetic field. The satellite will carry payload developed by scientists at the Bangalore-based Raman Research Institute. It will be placed in the Low Earth Orbit.

5) Reusable Launch Vehicle

In 2016, ISRO had conducted the first test of its Reusable Launch Vehicle — Technology Demonstrator, which it wants to evolve into the first stage of India’s reusable two stage orbital launch vehicle.

After the hypersonic flight experiment was successfully conducted in 2016, ISRO has been planning to conduct a landing experiment in which the technology demonstrator will land autonomously after being dropped from a helicopter.

As part of the experiment, an Indian Air Force helo will lift the technology demonstrator to a height of around four kilometres and release it. Following the release, the technology demonstrator will navigate towards the runway and land on its own in an airfield in Karnataka’s Chitradurga district.

This landing experiment, earlier scheduled to take place in 2020 and delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, is likely to take place this year.