Development of space science & technology has always been under debate for spending large public money just for launching of space vehicles to far distant planets with distant dreams of making future human settlements or bringing valuable resources and above all enriching human knowledge about these special objects and their working. With the space race to the planets the general public’s interest in space science technology and its applications is high the world over, especially boosted by feelings of national pride. No doubt, many nations including India have made tremendous progress in this regard but without much ado to its benefits to a common man.
International space station (ISS) has also been operational for many years now where scientists are always pursuing scientific and technological research efforts to have some exciting outcomes for the benefit of mankind. The ISS serves as a microgravity and space environment research laboratory in which scientific experiments are conducted on different areas like: astrobiology, astrobotany, astro-chemistry or cosmo-chemistry, cosmology, planetary science – overlaps with earth science, micro-g environment research, forensic astronomy, space archaeology (the study of human artifacts in outer space) is being conducted on ISS.
To re-orient space activities from ‘supply driven’ model to ‘demand driven’, the government has approved reforms in the space science sector to allow private players to join hands with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for space activities. These reforms will allow to focus on research and development activities, new technologies and human space flight programme and government approved the setting up of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe). The new agency will provide a level-playing field to private companies to use Indian space infrastructure. The new centre will hand-hold, promote and guide the private industries in space activities through encouraging policies and a friendly regulatory environment. The public sector enterprise New Space India Limited (NSIL) will endeavour to re-orient space activities from a supply driven model to a demand driven model, thereby, ensuring optimum utilization of our space assets. With an aim to make development in space science and technology more useful to common man, recently, government of India has opened a new department which will cater to private partnership in space science and its applications and accordingly, private sector in the entire range of space activities, including planetary exploration missions like to build rockets, provide launch services. The latest developments are true tributes to the founder of the space science in India, Vikram Sarabhai who had visualized that the space science would become pan-India and will also help wider socio-economic use of the space science.
Era of small satellites
The world’s first small satellite was launched on October 4, 1957, by the Soviet Union and it was called Sputnik1 and weighed 84 kg. Since then, the sector is revolutionized through sustained research and is no longer a government-exclusive domain. At least 170 small satellites now orbit the Earth and are engaged in various activities, from tracking wildlife, monitoring sites ravaged by natural disasters and looking for crashed planes to conducting space-based experiments, like searching for Earth-like planets outside the solar system. It is no exaggeration to say that their utility is limited only by the experimenter’s imagination. India has already proved her “global endorsement of space capability” by launching not only her but other countries space satellites with efficiency and low cost. These satellites are already proving beneficial to mankind by performing feats like: communication, GPS, monitor sea-traffic, formation flying of spacecraft and establishing inter-satellite links. Country is progressing forward towards launching of categories of small space satellites which are cheaper and miniature versions of the behemoth that weigh in tones. These can be categorized as pico-satellites (under 1 kg), nano-satellites (1 kg to 10 kg) or microsatellites (10 kg to 100 kg).
India’s first student satellite was ANUsat, weighing 40 kg, the microsatellite was built by Anna University in Tamil Nadu and was launched in 2009. A year-and-a-half later, students from seven engineering colleges in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh launched a picosatellite, STUDsat, which weighed 950 g. A proliferative year for Indian small satellites, 2011 saw the launch of three student satellites: 92 kg YOUTHsat, developed under an India-Russia collaborative project; 10.9 kg SRMsat developed by SRM University, Chennai, and 3 kg Jugnu by IIT Kanpur. While ISRO has not launched any student satellite after 2011, many are being developed across the country. The primary objective was to develop necessary technology and skills and such activities proved that it is possible to develop a complete, robust, field-deployable technology even at university level. Aims of space satellites also include gather information on agriculture sector and to generate a thermal map of the Indian subcontinent that will help identify urban heat islands. Space science and technology being developed to pull the satellite from space down and burn it up as it re-enters the atmosphere in order to get rid of space debris. IIT Madras is working on a small satellite, IITMsat which will carry a high energy particle detector called SPEED (Space based Proton and Electron Energy Detector), which will look for anomalous precipitation of high energy charged particles—protons and electrons from the Lower Van Allen Radiation Belt. It is expected that the data will be correlated with all events that can cause disturbances in the upper ionosphere, such as thunderstorms, solar flares and seismic precursors.
We need to build a strong technical ecosystem, not a strong space ecosystem as the space ecosystem will follow as a natural consequence. People with expertise in space science & technology innovations are coming forward with aims to preserve and build on the technology developed towards commercial activities. These people and companies are keeping the satellite as simple as possible with low cost. Indian companies that leverage on ISRO’s developments, skilled work force and infrastructure, could tap into new commercial space activities. Working on the vision of Vikram Sarabhai, founder of space science and technology in India that this high technology (space science) should be beneficial for the people of this country and for the governance of this country, according to former ISRO chairman K. Radhakrishnan, India is the "role model" in the world in harnessing space research and explorations for the benefit of the common man. Space science (satellite systems and communication) has already helped fishermen, farmers and disaster managers in India in early warnings and other services. According to former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair the advances in the field of space technology would be used for the benefit of common man as India is committed to use space technology for peaceful purposes. Stating that weather forecast system would improve further in the coming days and a nationwide network for schoolchildren would be established for introducing the benefits of weather forecasting to them. With the advances in space science and technology the cosmos has been transformed into a place that was, if not completely comprehensible, and then at least a little bit closer. More recently, residents of planet Earth have tackled the galaxy by selling tickets for planned civilian space-travel expeditions and shooting three-hundred-and-sixty-degree video from the International Space Station. To conclude, there are many direct and indirect benefits of space research, which are directly linked to human race. Man will continue to encounter the unknown and will conquer it, thereby profiting mankind.