S. SOMANATH has been at the helm at ISRO for over a year now. In his previous role, he was director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, and prior to that he was director, Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre in Thiruvananthapuram.
An expert in system engineering of launch vehicles, he contributed to the PSLV and the GSLV Mk-III in overall architecture, propulsion stages design, structural dynamics designs, separation systems, vehicle integration and integration procedures development.
He spoke to THE WEEK about ISRO’s priorities, including the forthcoming launch of Chandrayaan-3 and the Aditya L1 and Gaganyaan missions, and about ISRO’s international collaborations.
Q/ What are ISRO’s priorities in 2023?
A/ We have already started our launch programme [for 2023] with the launch of the SSLV D2 (second developmental flight of the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, which caters to launch of satellites weighing up to 500kg). During the first mission―the SSLV D1―we were not able to place satellites into a stable orbit. The second mission was successful. All the satellites were placed in orbit and all of them are doing well. We have plans to increase the production of SSLVs in the coming years.
However, more important launches are coming up. We are ready with the second launch of the OneWeb (foreign private company) satellites mission, to which we committed through the NSIL (NewSpace India Limited―ISRO’s commercial arm). The launch is likely to take place on March 26. We are preparing for the launch of the PSLV for commercial purposes. In addition to that we are also planning four to five additional PSLV launches before March 2024.
The most important thing we are going to do this year is the launch of Chandrayaan-3 in June or July. Its satellite is almost ready; only minor, final tests are pending. There is another important mission called Aditya L1, which is aimed at studying the sun. It will be launched using the PSLV. Currently, the satellite is in the integration phase; its critical payloads are delivered.
We also want to launch the next series of NavIC satellites this year―likely to be five more satellites. These are new generation navigation satellites with features like the L1 band (the civilian mobile band). NavIC will be launched with the GSLV, which had a failure in its last mission. So, we want to come back with a successful GSLV launch. With all these missions, we have almost one launch a month.
Q/ What is the status of the Gaganyaan mission?
A/ The Gaganyaan abort TV D1 (test vehicle demonstration 1) mission is a big-ticket mission for us. We will be using a new rocket called the test vehicle. We have to launch to about 14km and then trigger an abort. This is on track. For the Gaganyaan mission, we will try to complete major work this year and next year. We are targeting the end of 2024 for the mission. Of course, that will depend on the success of what we are doing now.
Q/ What is the status of astronaut training for the Gaganyaan mission? There is talk that the astronauts will head to NASA for further training?
A/ The Russian leg of training is over. The astronauts are also helping in designing and building the crew module as they now have the experience of the Russian way of doing it. They are also attending classes from experts and are trained on a simulator. There is also a special training which will happen a little later. For this they will all go back to Russia. This will most likely be before the mission flight.
Currently, we have an astronaut training facility adjacent to our satellite centre in Bengaluru, where the astronauts are undergoing fitness and simulator training. NASA has come to us offering to train our astronauts for the mission and the flight to the International Space Station. But we are yet to decide on that.
Q/ Can you shed more light on the Aditya L1 mission?
A/ We are expecting to launch the Aditya L-1 mission by June-July. The work has been going on for many years and it is a complex payload that has been developed by various institutions such as Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Space Application Centre and UR Rao Satellite Centre.
Q/ What are ISRO's initiatives to promote more commercial launches? What kind of collaboration can we expect with space startups and private players?
A/ The NSIL will continue to offer available launch vehicles for commercial launches. There is more demand coming in for launches. The NSIL will also be building the satellites for commercial launches. One of the satellites that has been built is for Tata Play. The NSIL will also work in the field of hand-held devices for communication systems and is building ground stations for clients.
Today, there are hundreds of startups in the space segment in India. We have created a new entity known as InSpace, which is helping these startups to connect with ISRO. We also have plans to connect startups with the financial support system and make use of some of ISRO products. At the same time, we are doing technology transfers to industries and startups. If it is a commercial technology, we transfer it through the NSIL. If it is a technology which is needed for startups, then it is done through InSpace.
Q/ What kind of international collaborations are you looking for?
A/ International collaborations are of many kinds. We have collaborations with 64 nations. We are jointly building NISAR―a navigation satellite―with NASA. We have also worked with NASA for Chandrayaan-1. We have an engagement with the French agency CNES; we have collaborated with them to built satellites and payloads. We also have a lot of collaboration with Russia in the design of our rockets, testing, cryogenic engine, and material and technology procurement. Similarly, we have collaborations with Japan, Germany and Sweden. With Australia, it is a recent engagement where [Australian companies] offered funds to startups and companies in India for joint development of space systems.
Q/ Please elaborate on your tie-ups with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and the Bharat Electronics Limited.
A/ The NSIL signed a contract with the HAL as prime contractor to build five PSLVs. It is a manufacturing, end-to-end production contract. The work is just starting and the HAL is also taking help from other companies which have teams that are building our rockets such as L&T and other manufacturing companies. In another 24 months, they will build the first satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) and launch it commercially. On the other hand, the BEL is doing a lot of work for us at ground stations and on ground equipment, our network, hand-held devices and antennae.
Q/ Any steps towards more collaboration with higher education and research institutes?
A/ We have traditional tie-ups with many higher education institutes. ISRO has benefited immensely from the IISc and IITs. We have strong connections with IIT Mumbai, IIT Kanpur, IIT Kharagpur, IIT Madras and IIT Delhi. We have created space technology cells in many of these IITs—we give an annual grant for research. We also started space technology incubation facilities in NITs and IITs. We have a total of 300-400 research projects running across institutions in the country.
Q/ Is ISRO working on new technology for the future?
A/ We are currently working on around 1,500 new technology areas and the work is going on in our different centres. We are into many areas such as new materials development, nano material, new chemical formulations, new devices in radio frequency and microwave, electric propulsion, nuclear thermal propulsion and cryogenic propulsion. We use artificial intelligence in multiple areas like materials, data processing, security, manufacturing and mission design. We also develop a lot of technology for satellites, like light-weight structures, bus structures for satellites, electronics architecture, power bus architecture, battery technology and energy management technology. We also work on technology in optical systems for which we have a laboratory for electro-optic systems. Our space applications centre is working on deployable mirrors, antenna systems and high resolution detectors.