Defying the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian Space Research Organisation, ISRO, launched its first satellite of the year 2020 recently, from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota Island off the Bay of Bengal coast. Along with the earth observation satellite EOS-01, the flight also carried 9 smaller customer satellites from three countries. The foreign satellites included an experimental satellite from Lithuania, four marine application satellites from Luxembourg, and four remote sensing satellites from the United States. Riding on ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle PSLV-C49, all the satellites were sequentially placed in their intended orbits after launch. It was ISRO’s first launch since December 11 last year, when the PSLV-C48 had put in space an earth observation satellite similar to the one launched on Saturday.
In January this year, ISRO had sent a communication satellite GSAT-30 to space, but that was done using an Ariane rocket launched from French Guiana. Thereafter, ISRO’s launch schedule was totally disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic. ISRO had planned more than 20 satellite launches in the fiscal year 2020-21, including high-profile missions like Aditya L1, the first exploratory mission to Sun, and unmanned Gaganyaan, the precursor to India’s first manned space flight. Half of the planned launches were those of earth observation satellites like the EOS-01.
Weighing 630 kg, EOS-01 is an earth observation satellite intended for applications in agriculture, forestry and disaster management support. It is an all-weather radar imaging satellite that will work together with the RISAT-2B and RISAT-2BR1 satellites launched last year. The satellite will also be used for border surveillance, to deter insurgent infiltration and for anti-terrorist operations.
As ISRO Chairperson Dr. K. Sivan narrated after launch, this mission was very special and unusual for ISRO because space activity cannot happen with ‘work from home’ regime, as is the norm in the current pandemic situation. Each and every space engineer has to be available in lab, industry, integration area as well as the field, especially when we are talking about launch missions like this. But he assured that the entire work was done keeping in mind safety of the team following health protocols – a really great achievement!
The successful launch has once again demonstrated the high reliability of the PSLV rocket, which has become the workhorse of ISRO. Out of 51 launches till date, the rocket has encountered only two failures and one partial failure. The PSLV has also been used to launch Chandrayaan-1, India’s first mission to Moon in 2008 and the Mars Orbiter Mission to Mars in 2013.
Emboldened by its track record of successful launches of the PSLV, ISRO has been offering launch services to international customers through PSLV for several years now. So far, 319 foreign satellites from 33 countries have been successfully put into orbit by the PSLV in 27 of its launches. The countries include Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, the United States and many others.
To cope with the growing demand for satellite launches, ISRO has already awarded contracts for satellite assembly, integration and testing to three private industry players for the assembly, integration and testing of satellites. ISRO hopes that this will pave the way for end-to-end satellite development by the private industry. Presently, the agency aims to develop 12 to 18 satellites per year.
ISRO is now gearing up to send the first Indians to space from Indian soil. The first Indian crew is scheduled to be sent to a low-earth orbit before the 75th anniversary of the country’s Independence in 2022. With a chain of successes behind it, ISRO can hopefully look forward to achieving it.
Script: Biman Basu, Senior Science Commentator