In India’s impressive journey in space technology over the decades, the year 2021 could well go down as a low performance one. It saw the usually busy Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) rather subdued in its missions and launches. The silver lining was the hectic activity in the private sector interest and start up space.
With the shadow of COVID-19 extending into 2021 and impacting most sectors of the economy, Space was no exception. With just two launches of which one was a failure, the usually high performing ISRO did not particularly cover itself in glory.
If one examines the strides made by US, China and Russia during the same period the contrast becomes very striking. These nations have on the contrary managed to up their space mission activities considerably during the pandemic. The Chinese and Americans have done nearly 50 launch missions.
Overall, the performance of ISRO nosedived in 2020 and 2021 though India had a comparatively good record in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. The Indian economy also started recovering well from 3rd quarter. Simple statistics show that the ISRO achieved two successful launches in 2020, and one success and one failure in 2021.
2021-ISRO emerges a low performer
The ISRO began 2021 on a positive note with its trusted workhorse the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle ( PSLV C51) successfully placing the INPE’s Amazonia-1 from Brazil and 18 other small satellites into orbit on February 28 (National Science Day) from the Satish Dhawan Space Port in Sriharikota.
Amazonia-1 is an optical earth observation satellite providing remote ending data to monitor the deforestation in the Amazon region of Brazil. Incidentally, the PSLV-C51-Amazonia and 18 satellites was the maiden launch under the newly formed New Space India Limited (NSIL), under the Department of Space.
The ISRO Chairman, K Sivan confidently announced that there would be around 14 missions during 2021–these include 7 launch missions, 6 satellite missions and one uncrewed Gaganyaan. Speaking after the succession mission at Sriharikota he said, the space agency plans to undertake two unmanned space missions before the Gaganyaan-manned space mission intending to send three Indians to space in the launch in 2022.
The launch missions included the three major Earth Observation Satellites (EOS), followed by the Oceansat, the Navigation Constellation ( NaVIC), all spread out till December.
However, the Second Wave of the pandemic during April to June impacted its plans. This was immediately followed by the major setback it suffered with the failure of its GSLV-F10/Gisat-1flight mission in August.
The Gisat-1 satellite renamed as the Earth Observation Satellite (EOS-3), which was to undertake geo imaging of large areas of the earth, monitor natural disasters and provide advance warnings of cyclones, cloudbursts, etc. in real time failed in the final cryogenic upper stage ignition.
A national level failure analysis committee was constituted for the same and the committee has identified the root cause and given its recommendations. Necessary design changes are being incorporated to improve the robustness of concerned systems, said the ISRO Chairman, K Sivan.
Post this failure, the ISRO also postponed three subsequent launches of the EOS scheduled for the third and fourth quarters of the year.
According to the Department of Space these flight will now be undertaken in the first quarter of 2022. Similarly, the uncrewed launch of Gaganyaan planned for December 2021 was also pushed into 2022.
To top it all the big programmes like the Moon mission-Chandrayaan-3, the Mars mission–Mangalyaan-2, the Aditya mission to the Sun etc. were put on the back burner.
There is a feeling that very little happened in ISRO during 2021. That feeling is primarily due to less number of launches, Sivan said in a New Year message posted on the ISRO website. “The last few months were a lull period for ISRO, due to corona.
However, as Chairman, ISRO, I am extremely proud that all of you have made very significant contributions in continuing the operational missions, conceiving many new missions, undertaking many technology development initiatives, and planning for the next decade of space activities.
Interestingly, between 2010 and 2019, ISRO was gaining momentum with increasing number of launches annually and ambitious missions to the Moon, Mars and Gaganyaan (Human in Space) programme etc. gathering steam.
Startups, private players and reforms
There was high excitement in the private sector and startup space during 2021 with the government fast tracking the Space Sector Reforms to expand the footprint of Space industry not only within India but also globally. Policies have been revised after due process to accommodate the reforms specially in the Space Based Communication Policy, Remote Sensing Policy and Technology Transfer Framework.
The constitution of IN-SPACe, the nodal agency for promotion of space based activities with Pawan Goenka as its Chairman is in place. Similarly, the NSIL, a public sector enterprise debuted with a launch and is moving fast as a manufacturer and operator of space systems on demand based model. With its push there is considerable momentum in the launch vehicle manufacturing, providing launch services, satellite building, providing satellite services etc.
In the Startup space, where the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi took special interest with a couple of interactions, at least half a dozen of the nearly 3 dozen are close to entering the action phase in 2022. These include Pixxel, Skyroot Aerospace, Agnikul, Dhruva etc.
Many of the startups have been able to raise funds from debt and equity lenders but they will require the final boost from the government and ISRO to get off the ground and into the next orbit. For example they should collaborate more with the ISRO and get access to the sophisticated launch and testing facilities.
From building micro satellites by Pixxel of Chennai to launch vehicles by Skyroot Aerospace in Hyderabad, to 3D printing engines for small rockets that can place small satellites into low earth orbits at Agnikul Cosmos there is lot of expertise and capacity building happening quickly. But, the challenge would be to raise big money to scale up and take on the competition in the global commercial market.
With the decadal plan for the Indian Space Programme formulated incorporating the reforms and needs of the private and academic sectors, the next few years should see lots of excitement and action.
Somasekhar Mulugu, former Associate Editor & Chief of Bureau of The Hindu BusinessLine, is a well-known political, business and science writer and analyst based in Hyderabad