ISRO did a jubilant Moon walk to a valiant Sun dance and much more in 2023. Today, India’s space ecosystem is firing on cylinders and bringing joy and happiness to 1.4 billion Indians. The soft-landing of Chandryaan-3 that united India like never before was just one jewel in the crown of India’s space agency.
2023 has been a year with a string of significant successes by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Now, the Department of Space has been given the charge by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to send India’s first astronaut from Sriharikota into space in 2024-2025, have an Indian space station by 2035 and send an Indian on the moon by 2040.
ISRO chairman S Somanath, who name means ‘Lord of the Moon’, reminiscing about the year, said, “Naya (new) ISRO is now in a new happy orbit. 2023 was truly the coming of age of ISRO.”
There was the lucrative commercial launch for the OneWeb constellation; the soft landing on the Moon where no human has gone before, a celestial Surya Namaskar, from mastering the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle to having India’s first private rocket being further mastered by a startup, Skyroot Aerospace – “all of these bolstered the morale of Team ISRO and helped bring a smile for Indians,” said Mr Somanath.
In a great run, 2023 also saw all nine launch missions by ISRO succeeding, incidentally this came on the back of two years of setback due to COVID-19.
The year started off with the first ever commercial launch from India’s heaviest rocket – the ‘Bahubali’ later rechristened Launch Vehicle Mark 3 – which in its two consecutive launches successfully hoisted 72 satellites for the OneWeb constellation, with India getting ready to roll out space-based internet. These launches were a milestone since India literally snatched these from the jaws of cut-throat competition like SpaceX. It also gave the confidence to rocket scientists at ISRO to polish and brush up their skills on this elegant but heavy weight launcher from India, as they prepared to make it human-ready for the ambitious astronaut launch from Sriharikota.
The real heart stopper of the year was India’s continued love affair with our nearest neighbour – the Moon or Chandamama. The evening of August 23, 2023 brought smiles and celebrations across India when the amiable chairman of ISRO joyously announced “India is on the moon”.
Not only did India become only the fourth country to soft land on a celestial body outside Earth, but that the scientists targeted to land nearer the South Pole of the Moon was a massive achievement since now the ‘gold rush’ of lunar exploration is all towards its south polar region.
Getting the first selfie from the lunar surface – when the Vikram Lander sent back images of the Indian flag being wheeled down and settling onto the lunar surface – was a heavenly moment for the Indians.
This was India’s third outing to the moon, Chandryaan-1 in 2008 rewrote lunar history by finding the hitherto undiscovered presence of water molecules on the moon. Chandrayaan-2 attempted to soft land on the moon in 2019, but Vikram crash landed as an under-tested machine was sent to the lunar surface ISRO. Lessons were learnt, top ISRO leadership was changed and as a consequence India tasted success in 2023 with Vikram and Pragyaan fully completing their tasks and becoming India’s permanent ambassadors to the moon at the Shiv Shakti Point.
Chandrayaan-3 also showcased how nimble ISRO had become when it threw in two surprises – first, a hop experiment by Vikram and then the Propulsion Module of the mission was brought back into the Earth orbit.
Mr Somanath said that for the cost of one mission, ISRO managed to extract the gains for three, and now the agency is ready for a sample return mission to bring back moon rocks.
Within days of the historic soft landing, India launched its maiden space-based observatory to study the Sun with the Aditya L1 satellite, which is now closer to its rendezvous with the Sun. It has already sent back stunning images of the full disc of the Sun. Aditya will be India’s insurance policy to protect its Rs 50,000 crores worth of space assets.
Early in the year, ISRO bounced back successfully launching the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), a completely new device developed by the ISRO after a maiden launch failed last year. This slim and trim rocket can carry a few hundred kilograms to space but the main selling point is that it can have a turn-around time within a week. ISRO hopes the industry will fully take over the launcher and make it a commercial success. In future, it could also be used as a missile.
Late last year, Skyroot Aerospace became the first private company to launch a rocket into space even though it was a sub-orbital flight, this had paved the way for the private space rocket launch system to get wings. Today, more than a hundred start-ups are vying to make a commercial success out of India’s frugal engineering capabilities. Sophisticated satellites are being launched by Indian start up, though still as experimental objects. India also successfully tested the Re-useable Launch Vehicle (RLV) whose scaled model safely landed autonomously after a drop by an IAF Chinook helicopter.
The country also saw the unveiling of a forward looking Indian Space Policy-2023 which will help ‘augment space capabilities; enable, encourage and develop a flourishing commercial presence in space; use space as a driver of technology development’. It also opens up avenues for commercial utilization of resources from asteroids. But what has evaded the country is enactment of a comprehensive space law and the setting up of a liability regime for space-based activities. If the private sector has to flourish, a paralysis in legal frameworks has to be removed.
India is preparing for its big Gaganyaan Mission – where up to three astronauts can be sent into space for up to a week using an Indian rocket system. A crucial test of the crew escape system was successfully tested, but there are at least another 20 tests that need to be completed before anyone of the four astronaut designates can fly into space. This Rs 9,000-crore mission is currently the flagship enterprise of ISRO.
The new year could well open with the launch of India’s maiden space-based observatory to study dying stars and black holes through XpoSat. But the world is also waiting for the launch of the NISAR Satellite or the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite – the single most expensive civilian earth imaging satellite ever to be made in the world.
The satellite – which will cost over $1.2 billion – will in a way “save lives” by studying climate change and the log deformation in the Earth’s crust like never before. The first-ever India-US joint satellite initiative should rightly be named ‘NISARGA’ satellite – meaning nature or the ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ satellite as it would study the pale blue dot of the globe through the concept of ‘one earth, one family, one future’.
Sometime in 2024, if all goes well, an Indian astronaut will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) on a joint Indo-US mission and who knows the space fan that he is, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself may opt to create history by becoming the first head of state to visit the ISS as an astronaut! When asked about this possibility, the NASA chief Bill Nelson told NDTV it would be a welcome step.
As the Indian space odyssey continues, Mr Somanath said, “Now, the Indian space ecosystem is all set for the Gaganyaan mission, and to have the Bhartiya Antriksha Station by 2035 and first Indian on Moon by 2040. ISRO is fully committed and energized to make India a developed or Viksit country by 2047.”
Bharat is truly reaching for the stars on its home-grown technology.