Page last updated at 10:30 GMT, Wednesday, 30 April 2008 11:30 UK

India's growing strides in space

Pallava Bagla
By Pallava Bagla

Rocket carrying 10 satellites is launched from Sriharikota
Monday's launch was carried live on state television

India is well known today for its software and information technology industry.

Less well known is that in a nation where more than 300 million people live on less than $1 a day, it is also a real force to reckon with when it comes to top class rocket and satellite technology.

On Monday the Indian space agency created a world record by successfully launching 10 satellites in one go.

That shattered the previous record of a Russian rocket that successfully launched eight satellites last year.

Launching 10 satellites requires immense precision. When the tricky operation starts the rocket is already travelling at 7.5 kilometres per second.

Jean-Yves Le Gall, CEO of Arianspace, Paris, says "simultaneously launching 10 satellites is a great achievement".

The Indian space agency, set up 35 years ago, is still really a baby among the world's space-faring nations. This was its 26th launch of a rocket from India's only space centre, Sriharikota, situated on the Bay of Bengal coast in southern India.

Compare this to the hundreds of launches that have been undertaken by Nasa and their Russian and European counterparts.


The 16,000-employee Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) has mastered these demanding space technologies with little outside help because of Delhi's decision to go ahead with nuclear testing way back in 1974.

So its achievements are all the more impressive.

India has a whopping 11 national communications satellites in orbit at present. That is the largest constellation for any country in the Asia-Pacific region.

India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which carried the satellites
India's space programme is more than 45 years old

Today the country undoubtedly has one of the largest national networks of operational satellites anywhere in the world.

Isro argues that it's a profitable business - for every $1 spent on the space programme the return has been $2.

Its budget is less than $1bn a year, compared with more than $17bn that Nasa spends.

India's remote sensing capabilities are almost legendary.

Today there are seven Indian-made and operated remote sensing satellites in orbit, the largest number of any country in the civilian domain.

They can map at a resolution of less than a metre, which means you can literally count the number of soldiers marching in a formation, anywhere on Earth.

Almost a third of the global market for remote sensing images at a resolution of 5-6 metres has already been captured by India.

The new mapping satellite of the Cartosat series put into orbit on Monday will provide even higher resolution images to the global community as it joins its Indian twin that has already been functioning since early last year.

Knocking on the door

But to capture a significant part of the $140bn satellite launch market may take a long time as India's larger rocket, the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), is still in its adolescence.

Isro has a long wait before joining the big boys' club of the USA, Russia, France, Japan and China - but India is knocking at the door.

The Indian rocket used on Monday was the smaller Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

It weighed a whopping 230 tons - as much as 50 elephants - and stands as high as a 12-storey building.

The launch earned India more than $500,000.

PSLV taking off
'Simultaneously launching 10 satellites is a great achievement'
Almost 15 minutes into the flight the 690kg Indian mapping satellite called Cartosat 2-A was put into orbit.

It was the most important passenger on board and is really a high resolution mapping satellite, which can, from its perch of more than 600km distinguish objects as small as a car.

Almost a minute later an experimental remote sensing satellite called the Indian Mini Satellite-1 was put into orbit.

Now with the two big daddies out of the way, the trickiest part was dropping off all the "babies" on board.

They are really nano-satellites, each weighing 3-16kg. These were dropped of one by one, with gaps of 20 seconds. It was all over in less than 20 minutes after lift-off.

These experimental nano-satellites have been made by university students from Canada, the Netherlands, Japan, Denmark and Germany.

The eight nano-satellites are really test beds meant for pushing the frontiers of satellite technology towards making affordable satellites.

They use basic off-the-shelf electronics and have short mission lives of a year or two at most.

The total weight of these nano-satellites on this record-breaking Indian mission was about 50kg.

Big challenge

India's next big challenge is the launch of Chandrayaan-1 (Moon Craft), the country's maiden shot at the Moon to be launched later this year using the PSLV.

A $100m mission, it is meant to map the Moon's surface in detail like never before and will undertake the most intense search for water on our nearest neighbour.

Cartosat 2A satellite during prelaunch tests
A mapping satellite was also put into orbit

This is first multi-continent mission in several decades, and the tables have been turned.

Countries like the US, UK and Sweden are being given literally a free ride to the Moon as India is charging them nothing for taking their instruments there.

A recent Japanese and Chinese mission carried only instruments from their own countries.

India's mark on space-faring is now indelible, with a mission for robotic landing on the Moon already scheduled for 2012 and space crafts to Mars, an asteroid and the Sun already being planned.

The Indian space agency is already looking at sending an Indian up on an Indian rocket from Indian soil within the next few years.

As Dr G Madhavan Nair, chairman of Isro put it to me: "Twenty years from now, when space travel is likely to become mundane like airline travel today, we don't want to be buying travel tickets on other people's space vehicles."

The author is an award winning science journalist and photographer. He is a correspondent for Science magazine and science editor for New Delhi Television. The views expressed here are his own.

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