Articles and Commentaries |
January 4, 2024

India’s Space Programme: An Interview with Dr G Satheesh Reddy, President of the Aeronautical Society of India

Written By: Rami N Desai

Rami Niranjan Desai:

Over the years, India has made some path breaking successes in the space domain. How do you think is India’s space program progressing today?

Satheesh Reddy:

India has done exceedingly well in the space sector. We all should complement the Department of Space (DOS) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for this fantastic feat. We have developed our own launch vehicles, whether it is the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) or the Geostationary Launch Vehicle (GSLV) for launching the satellites into 36,000 kilometres orbit and the variance of it and becoming completely self-reliant in that area by developing our own cryogenic engines, building varieties of payloads and satellites. And then taking up many missions like Mangalyaan, Chandrayaan and others. India stands very tall among the developed nations in the space segment. India is one of the few countries which has its own satellite-based navigation system – the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), ISRO has done exceedingly well in the area of space activities including the various base stations and ground stations, that are required for communications, weather forecasting, education, agriculture, earth observation, imagery, etc.

Rami Niranjan Desai:

You mentioned the Mangalyaan and the Chandrayaan programs. You know both of them, Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan 3 were very, very successful. What are the future programs which are of importance as far as space exploration is concerned?

Satheesh Reddy:

Firstly, we are one of the few countries who have done Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan. And lot of data has been generated in the Chandrayaan where we landed on the lunar South Pole. We again should congratulate ISRO for this fantastic feat, for what they have done and the data that is being collected. As we hear from the Department of Space and the ISRO Chairman, Mr Somnath, the next Chandrayaan mission will be to collect some soil samples from the moon and bring it back to the earth for analysis. Second, Gaganyaan, sending a human being into space is another important activity which ISRO has taken up and probably in the next two years this activity also should be successfully completed. Thirdly, lots of other space exploration activities are being taken up. Mission Aditya has been taken up to observe the sun. From this mission, we will get data on cosmic rays, the suns temperature, etc.. many similar activities are planned and nation is justifiably proud of ISRO.

Rami Niranjan Desai:

We’ve also been hearing a lot of terms like ‘space war’. What exactly is space war and what are the different technologies used in this domain?

Satheesh Reddy:

Firstly, space has become the fourth dimension of warfare. Space has been used for defence purposes by multiple nations now. One of the first things is observing the various activities from satellites, through ground based sensors. This could relate to movement of troops, location of weapons and equipment, location of radars, and missiles and many others. If you look at some of the wars which have taken place recently, satellites are being launched or satellites are already in the space, and they keep observing everything and data is completely generated. That’s what has happened in the Iraq war. You know everything where a radar is located, where troop movement is taking place, and where the tanks and vehicles are moving. A lot of satellites carry payloads to gather Electronic Intelligence (ELINT), Communication Intelligence (COMINT), Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) and image intelligence and related things. Lots of payloads are being developed by the various nations.

Rami Niranjan Desai:

You said that there are a lot of applications in the defence domain. How is it affecting our defence preparedness?

Satheesh Reddy:

As I said, firstly, satellites provide surveillance and intelligence information. So, whatever the resources you have, right from the troops to the various sensors, weapons, and things like that will be known to the enemy if they have placed the satellite and it’s continuously observing through images or through other payloads like ELINT, COMINT, SIGINT or image intelligence. So, you probably can track the communication. You probably can track where the radars are. You can track various sensors and various weapons. This is one of the important things which any nation gets affected by. And so, some of the nations, as I just mentioned, are looking at how to counter these satellites. So, there’s ASAT missions, some of them are putting lasers and some of them trying to put other electromagnetic things and trying to have some robotic related activities in space. And so, these are some of the activities which are happening which actually concern any nation because your information is known to the enemy.

Rami Niranjan Desai:

India has also carried out an anti-satellite mission. Is space then becoming a war zone? And what do you think is the stand of India?

Satheesh Reddy:

See, firstly there are three countries other than India which have done the anti-satellite missions- Russia, America and China. India became the fourth nation to have demonstrated this capability. As far as the space is concerned, as I said, as you are able to observe the entire movement and locations of it, it’s a concern for any nation that its information is known to the adversary. So that’s how the anti-satellite missions have come. But then this is a concern that space is getting weaponised and it is not good for the world. So, India has been saying that the space should be used for the peaceful purposes. But then the Prime Minister was very clear that the mission what India has taken up, anti-satellite mission called ‘Shakti’ is only a technological demonstration. We wanted to show it to the world that India has such capabilities to take up such complex and critical missions. So, India is very clear that the space should be used for the peaceful purposes and should not be weaponised.

Rami Niranjan Desai:

Are any further programs like Mission Shakti being planned? Also, could you tell us a little bit about what are the various types of offensive anti-satellite technologies?

Satheesh Reddy:

Firstly, as far as India is concerned, the honorable Prime Minister, when he gave the direction, said that we will take up this mission to demonstrate to the world that India has such technological capabilities. The intent was to do a technological demonstration only and not take it further. But then, if you look at technology, there are multiple technologies which are developed for anti-satellite. One is to use a missile to destroy a satellite. Second is to use high power lasers to neutralise a satellite. High-power electromagnetics can again be used to neutralise, which can be satellite based or ground based or airborne. Thee are payloads being put on satellites to try to destroy an adversary’s  satellite. There is something called Co-orbit satellites, meaning you also travel close to it and then attack the other satellite. They have a robotic arm and things like that to achieve one’s objective. So, these are multiple technologies that entire world is talking about. Probably somebody is working, somebody is only doing the research, somebody is thinking of and things like that. But technologically, these are the technologies which are being worked out for the anti-satellite missions.

Rami Niranjan Desai:

Which countries do you think are very advanced in this sort of offensive anti-satellite technologies?

Satheesh Reddy:

Very clear. It is Russia, China, USA. These are the known ones for which actual public information is available. But there are other nations definitely attempting it. Probably some other nations in Europe and then maybe in the other countries probably attempting it. But unless there is a test done, it will not be very clear about what exactly is the way they’re going at.

Rami Niranjan Desai:

Are there any sort of laws that govern space?

Satheesh Reddy:

There are  space laws which have come into picture. In fact, in our own Indian universities also, space laws are introduced into some of the law universities. But then we have to see how much the treaties are there, where the world is abiding to these treaties and people are accepting these treaties has to be seen.

Rami Niranjan Desai:

Let me now bring your attention to India’s ASAT mission that created a lot of debris in space. People have expressed concerns and apprehensions on the test. Is this concern legitimate?

Satheesh Reddy:

See firstly, when India has done this test, there have been a very clear direction from the honorable Prime Minister to see that the debris is minimum. So, the test has been planned, the collision has been planned in such a way so that the debris created was minimal. And also, it was carried out at a lower orbit at about 300 km, so that the debris decays very fast. About 400 debris or so were detected, but this decayed very quickly. Today, websites that track space debris do not show any debris from the Indian ASAT test. So, India has behaved as a very responsible nation. We have conducted a test to show technological capability and we have ensured that the debris decays vey quickly.

Rami Niranjan Desai:

But how is the world going to finally handle any sort of space debris? Are there any actions that are already in the pipeline to manage space debris? And also, could you clarify to our viewers what are the dangers of space debris?

Satheesh Reddy:

Since space debris is of grave concern, all the nations are looking into this issue very seriously, individually and even collectively. The estimated space debris today of the size of about more than 10 cm is about 25,000. This debris is a danger to satellites and to space stations. Also, debris can impact launch  activities, or even the interplanetary motions. To deal with debris, we must take up the missions in such a way that debris will be minimum on the launch path and on the satellite orbital path. Secondly, we must also try to collect these debris through various mechanisms and then remove them from space. We could also look into using high powered lasers to break the debris into smaller pieces. Small pieces are of little concerns compared to debris of 10 cm, 15 cm or bigger objects. So, these are all various technologies which are being thought of, both from space itself or from the ground, or from the  air. How to actually eliminate or destroy or remove this debris is a serious concern and entire globe, all the nations have to sit together, work collectively on these technologies and try to as a world, as one nation try to eliminate these debris.

Rami Niranjan Desai:

Clearly this sort of debris would affect everybody equally, but has there been any sort of, you know, common legal sort of rules, regulations made amongst the nations on this? Is there any consensus?

Satheesh Reddy:

There have been a number of discussions and various nations have been sitting together. They have been several conferences. Recently also there was a conference in Bangalore and people are trying to workout this issue. But there have been general guidelines which have been brought in that whatever space activities we take up,  minimum debris should be generated from it. As I said, the technologies which need to be developed and nations which have to take up the activity to mitigate this, plans are being worked out and various nations are sitting together to come out with an action plan.

Rami Niranjan Desai:

As we come to the final part of this discussion, can you explain to us how does the Department of Space and the Department of Defence cooperate with each other?

Satheesh Reddy:

See, one thing is these two are two separate departments, but both are scientific organisations, technology development organisations. So likewise, there is Atomic Energy and Department of Science and Technology, or CSIR, are also there, where a lot of science and technology developments happen, and we all cooperate with each other. All these departments cooperate with each other in various developmental activities, research activities and even technology development activities. Particularly ISRO and DRDO have some common technology, like ISRO does launch vehicles, DRDO does missiles and some of the payload’s technologies which are there in the missile, navigation system, control systems and related things, they are common. So, technologically some dialogues discussions and cooperation do happen between the two departments. We are one nation. The entire scientific capability what is there in this nation, right from academic institutes to various research organisations and industry, have to synergistically work towards the science and technology development of the country and make the nation advance in science and technology hub. That’s the goal. So, all the departments cooperate on science and technology.

Rami Niranjan Desai:

That is absolutely very promising to hear. But let me ask you my final question, in 2024 what can we expect to see from ISRO?

Satheesh Reddy:

I think I’m not the right person to answer. But I think some activity towards the Gaganyaan should take place. That’s what I hear from the sources and a lot should happen. The country would become more and more Atmanirbhar. The country has become Atmanirbhar in a big way in all the activities of space or defence or other activities. Lot of indigenous activities systems are being developed, technologies being developed. And it is very, very happy to know that lots of youngsters have joined into this frame. Lots of startups have come up. They’re working on very advanced technologies and innovations. The type of innovations which are coming up from the youngsters and startups is fantastic. And I’m sure 2024 will be a great year with lots of innovations and lots of science and technology achievements.

Brief Bios:

Dr. G. Satheesh Reddy is President, The Aeronautical Society of India, Former Secretary DD R&D, Chairman DRDO and Scientific Advisor to Raksha Mantri, Government of India.

Rami Niranjan Desai is a Distinguished Fellow at India Foundation.

Share:

Latest News

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 × five =

Explide
Drag