Dr K. Sivan, who was recently given a one-year extension as the head of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), has his hands full, with India fast-tracking its space programmes delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Sivan’s priorities this year are to implement space reforms and fast-track the Gaganyaan and the Chandrayaan-3 missions. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, he talks about ISRO’s priority programmes, international collaborations and also about how private players can play a more meaningful role in India’s space programme.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q/ What are your priorities after the pandemic-hit 2020?
A/ Our highest priority is to implement space reforms. We are establishing IN-SPACe (Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre) for which we are accepting applications. We are also interacting with the industry. Our main space mission this year will be Gaganyaan, the work for which is moving fast, and Chandrayaan-3, for which we have concluded the configuration. We also have the science mission, Aditya-L1. Other projects such as [the radar imaging satellite] RISAT-1A are also moving ahead. In the next couple of months, we expect to finish the development of our Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). We are also concentrating on new technologies such as electric propulsion and indigenisation in the satellite area. For the Aditya-L1 mission, we are waiting for the payload to be developed by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. We hope to schedule it by the end of 2021.
Q/ What is the current status of astronaut training for the Gaganyaan mission?
A/ The four selected astronauts from the Indian Air Force have been deputed to ISRO. Their training is going full steam ahead in Russia and they will be completing their generic training by March or April. It primarily focuses on their ability to withstand the harsh environment—including severe cold weather and the sea and forest environments. As part of the generic training the astronauts also have a few theory classes. The generic training has been successful. In simple terms, the astronauts’ bodies are ready for the flight. After their return from Russia, they will be imparted mission-specific training. A few Air Force doctors are also part of the training programme in Russia to help the astronauts. They were in Russia during the initial stages of the training and they returned when their presence was not required. Now they are going back again.
Q/ What kind of mission-specific training are the astronauts expected to undergo?
A/ The astronauts will be trained to handle emergency situations and this part of the mission-specific training will be done in Bengaluru, mostly at the ISRO’s Satellite Integration and Testing Establishment (ISITE). It will be an ongoing training and will continue till the launch of the mission. The aim of this continuous training is [to ensure physical fitness].
Q/ Is there any expected launch date for the Gaganyaan manned mission?
A/ The designs for the mission are getting finalised and now the realisation will start. Right now I cannot tell you the exact [launch] date. Initially our target was to finish the two unmanned Gaganyaan missions by July 2021 and the manned mission by December 2021. Because of the pandemic, everything has been delayed.
Q/ What is the status of the unmanned missions?
A/ We plan to have at least one unmanned Gaganyaan mission this year. We need two successful unmanned missions before the manned missions. In the space environment, there are a lot of ‘unknown unknowns’, which we are not able to understand before the flight. This applies to all missions and not only Gaganyaan. For space missions we take at least two development flights. During the first development flight, we look for any technical deviations of whatever we were expecting and whatever has happened. Based on this observation the second development flight is launched. The aim is to bring out unknown issues... which we had not anticipated on ground.
Q/ Any update on the Chandrayaan-3 mission?
A/ For Chandrayaan-3 we have incorporated a new system based on the recommendations of the national-level committee [of academics and ISRO experts]. Currently, the Chandrayaan-3 systems are under realisation. This project, too, was affected by the pandemic. It has now been fast-tracked, but I cannot give you the exact time-frame of its launch.
Q/ What are the major differences between Chandrayaan-2 and Chandrayaan-3 missions?
A/ In Chandrayaan-2, we had an orbiter, a lander, and a rover inside the lander. Since the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is already functioning, Chandrayaan-3 will not have an orbiter. We have a propulsion system to take the Chandrayaan-3 lander and the rover to the moon. The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter will be utilised for all the orbiter functions of Chandrayaan-3. Data generation from Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is currently going on. Recently we published the Chandrayaan-2 phase 1 data from the orbiter for public use, which is being used by many people for scientific purposes.
Q/ What is your view on the involvement of private players in India’s space programme?
A/ ISRO has been primarily carrying out all the major space activities in India. These include building rockets, satellites and launch vehicles, and also launching satellites, establishing ground stations, acquiring data from satellites and providing space-based services to the public. Now we are enabling private players to carry out space activities. They will be allowed to build and launch rockets and satellites and can have their own ground stations. This does not mean taking away any ISRO activity. Our missions will continue, but private players will also be allowed to do such work. Space activities involve a lot of complicated safety, security and legal aspects. We need a mechanism to regulate all these. They also require huge infrastructure. Private players will not be required to build huge facilities as they will be allowed to use ISRO’s facilities.
Q/ What is the status of different space policies other than space reforms?
A/ We are preparing a remote sensing policy, launch vehicle policy and space exploration policy. We have released our SATCOM policy for public comments and it will now be going for cabinet approval. Our remote sensing policy, too, has been put in the public domain. Comments from the public will be given due consideration and technical issues will be addressed. Under space reforms, the public sector unit NSIL (NewSpace India Limited) is now entitled to carry out commercial missions.
Q/ What about your collaboration with international space agencies?
A/ We have a collaboration with Russia for training astronauts. We are collaborating with the French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) for flight surgeons’ training. Another programme with the CNES is for launching a Thermal infraRed Imaging Satellite (TRISHNA). We have collaborated with NASA for an aperture radar satellite. We are planning to collaborate with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) for another moon mission after Chandrayaan-3.
Q/ What about the Venus mission?
A/ We are yet to reach the definition stage.