Category Archives: India

India Did WHAT??!

The Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle Mark III in action. Image from the ISRO.

What if you did something that was awesome, a first for you and your country, and the world just yawned? Can you imagine how irritating that would be? Especially if your accomplishment was nearly as important as certain other accomplishments that occurred weeks earlier? Imagine India being in that awkward position and the something significant they accomplished was a capsule re-entry test.

Yes, India tested a crew capsule last week. And barely anyone seemed to mention it. Compare this with the SLS/Orion hoo-rah-ing. Perhaps India’s focus is more on development than PR? (Doubtful, really. Most big organizations pursue PR like a lawyer chasing an ambulance.)

Last Friday, I happened upon an article in the Bangalore Mirror about India’s latest launch of a very big rocket–the Launch Vehicle Mark III (LVM3). On December 18, the LVM3 was finally successfully launched into the skies. More importantly, it carried a payload called the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE). The whole idea of the launch was to test a few things, such as the LVM3 actually working as it should while pushing through the Earth’s atmosphere into space and that it was going in the direction it was supposed to go. CARE was another experiment, which really was designed to allow the Indians to understand the re-entry characteristics of the module itself (pictured below).

A lot of space objects floating in the oceans lately… Image from the ISRO.

So, again, the Indians are testing a crew capsule, and this time they dropped it from the LVM3 about 126 km (nearly 80 miles) above the Earth. According to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the crew module weighs 3775 kg (a little over 4 tons), which is just shy of the new LVM3’s Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) payload weight limit of 4,000 kg. The re-entry vehicle/crew module came back to Earth safely, using parachutes near the end of its descent. It landed in the Bay of Bengal and was recovered. The ISRO is considering the test of the rocket and the CARE mission a success.

India’s been rather busy with space this year. There’s the BIG mission, the Mars Orbiter Mission, which is now orbiting Mars and twittering pictures back to us (although it’s been fairly quiet lately). India is also halfway towards getting its own positioning, navigation, and timing satellite constellation, the IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System), in orbit. Now India caps it all off, literally, with a successful crew capsule test AND gaining the ability to lift heavier satellite payloads in orbit.

And who were the idiots saying this was a bad year for space? The glass is halfway full, people…

Update:  At the risk of turning this into an echo chamber, one of the people who liked this post actually has a very nice run-down of their watching the launch 11 kilometers away from the Satish Dhawan Space Center. It’s very short, but you can read about it right here:

The Indian Mechanical Martian

Image from Universe Today.

The above image is a great reminder of the playful part of conducting serious missions.  The latest mission to Mars in this case just arrived Tuesday and was placed into Mars’ orbit.  The country responsible for the mission?  India.

11 months ago, in November 2013, the Indians launched the Mangalyaan, or Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) with the goal of getting the spacecraft to Mars.  MOM is now in orbit around Mars, and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is happily posting Martian snapshots (below) taken from the Mars Colour Camera payload on Mangalyaan. You can follow the ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Twitter feed here.

Mars from MOM. Image from the ISRO’s Twitter feed. Posted 1121PM on 24 Sept 2014.

Side shot of Mars from MOM. Image from ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Twitter feed, 737AM 25 Sept 14.

A lot has been written about this mission’s low price tag of about $74 million, which is significantly lower than just ULA/DoD launch pricing of $450 million.  But I’ve already written about that part earlier in the year.

Why did India send out a probe to orbit Mars?  The ISRO is extremely interested in the processes that allowed for the loss of water on Mars (at least the Delhi Daily News says so–I didn’t see it as part of the ISRO’s written mission objectives).  They also want a map of Mars’ surface.  There are a few other parts to the ISRO’s scientific objectives for MOM involving the measuring of methane levels, and discovering what minerals the red planet is also composed of.

The ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission website has a decent amount of information, as well as a few videos and images, that are all about the mission, the spacecraft, and the new data they’re collecting now.  If you’re interested in this Indian spacecraft and its mission, then you should perhaps go there to read all about it.

Is it cool that India did this on a shoestring?  Yes.  Is it awesome they even did it at all?  Definitely.  Welcome to the Mars High Club, India!!

PSLV: A SpaceX/ULA/Ariane Alternative?

A PSLV launch, but not this article’s PSLV launch. Image from

The Indians continue proving they are in the space business for real.  The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), their success with the Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV), and their continued success with their latest launch today of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Satish Dhawan Space Center (formerly known as Sriharikota Launching Range), are all examples of India’s commitment to move forward into space.

Today’s PSLV launch successfully inserted a French SPOT 7 imagery satellite into a sun-synchronous low earth orbit (LEO).  Five small satellites were also boosted into orbit by PSLV:  Canada’s University of Toronto two satellites, numbered 4 and 5, from the Canadian advanced nanospace eXperiment program (CanX); one picosat (PSAT) and nanosat (NSAT) from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University VELOX-I; and a German ship-tracking satellite, Automatic Identification System satellite 1 (AISat 1).  All of these satellite will be in LEO as well.

Such an international satellite payload base should be no surprise when you consider the cost of a PSLV launch:  $75 million.  This is small change compared the to the mounting costs of launching a rocket through the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program run through the United Launch Alliance (ULA–about $450 million per launch–here’s why), but may be a little more that what a SpaceX launch costs ($56-$60 million).  PSLV even gives the Arianespace Ariane5 launches, which currently run at about $192 million per launch, some interesting competition.

While $75 million per launch nearly seems downright reasonable in the weird world of the space launch business, keep in mind that  that number is also nearly the price of what it cost India to run an entire Mars probe program, MOM, in which the probe, Mangalyaan, is expected to orbit the red planet this September.

GSLV, PSLV, and MOM–they are all proof positive to any doubters that the Indians are very serious about moving out into space.  Add in the very inexpensive costs of launch and space project management, and it shouldn’t be very surprising they are rapidly gaining space business from other nations.  IF the Indians, through their Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), can successfully keep the costs down while increasing launch frequency and availability, then this development could be quite a boon for India, economically, technologically, and perhaps socially(?).

I wonder if they have any work for me over there?  Hmmmm…

Low-cost Mars Probe Hack: Jugaad To Be Kidding Me

The jugaad. Very simple, very cheap, but works. Image from Wikipedia.

Americans pride themselves on entrepreneurship, independence, ingenuity, and can-do traits.  And there’s historical and current evidence of those traits to support that pride.  The Indians, however, seem to be quickly adopting these “American” traits, but at less expense.  Or maybe the traits have always been present in India, but something was suppressing them for a long time.  That’s a discussion for another blog.  This post brings to light an aspect of Indian can-do on the cheap called jugaad.

Jugaad is defined, at least according to that Book of Knowledge, Wikipedia, as an “innovative fix or simple work-around.”  Not only that, but the fix has been accomplished at the expense of some rule-bending and using something in a way it wasn’t originally intended for.  Yep, that almost sounds like a hacker mentality.  It’s not just an engineering philosophy, however:  the “truck” in the picture above is also a jugaad.  Terrible brakes, smokey diesel engine, and slow, it still gets done the job of transporting people and their things around India.  It’s what’s helping people in India live.

The jugaad philosophy has been officially adopted by engineers in at least one area:  space exploration.  Last November, the Indians successfully launched a Mars probe, the Mangalyaan.  It’s still on its way and expected to orbit Mars this September.  If this probe succeeds, it will mean India will have accomplished a feat that even China (one of the more active nations in space) has been unable to do.  But here’s the thing about India’s Mars  mission–it cost them very little to do.

Total costs for the mission are about $74-75 million.  That’s right–it cost them less to build and run the entire mission than it does for the US to launch a DoD rocket.  Now I’m sure there are some differences in cost of living and quality of life–but India’s scientists and engineers are probably very well paid.  There’s likely some favoritism going on in the contract selection process, too.

So why does it cost so much less to run a space mission in the solar system from India?  The Indians attribute some cost savings to their work ethic, noting some of their engineers put in 18-20 hour days and compare that to the typical European 35 hour work week.  Well, maybe, but that’s a very quick way to burning out people, particularly the ones needed in a space program–the “passionate ones.”

What else in this jugaad philosophy might explain the lower costs?  The Indians say they are using existing technologies to help decrease costs–but then so is ULA, and just launching one of their rockets has increased to $450 million.

It might be beneficial for US companies to make a run over to India and see what’s happening.  They might learn something.  They might be horrified that certain processes don’t exist or have been severely shortened.  But whatever it is, the US cannot afford to keep spending millions on space in Defense and Civilian programs just to get satellites in orbit (yes, yes–I know the US spends relatively little on space).  SpaceX and ULA are beating their chests right now, talking over each other about ingenuity and innovation.  One company is trying to stay on the government gravy train, and one is trying to get some of the gravy.  If companies are depending on, and running to, government for their profits, something is broken.

Maybe it’s time to adopt a hacker philosophy for space again.  We did that once, but the Indians remind us we could go jugaad again.  If we don’t, someone may eat our lunch.  Chicken tikka masala, anyone?

The Ultimate High Ground? This Sounds Familiar…

Indian footprints

The Indians have been getting into space in their own way.  A few of my previous posts have highlighted their space activities.  This latest post about India’s space activities from the website, “The Diplomat,” is interesting, in a nostalgic sort of way.  Back in 2003, possibly earlier, the United States Air Force (USAF) was beating the drum for space being the “Ultimate High Ground” for conflict.

So imagine my surprise when I see the last sentence in the last paragraph of The Diplomat’s post:  “…right now this higher ground is space.”  It brought back memories of being in the USAF again.  In fact, a lot of things the Indians are doing remind me of the actions accomplished in the USAF.  There’s mention of an “Integrated Space Cell” (ISC) the Indians have established.  Hmm, that sounds familiar, and actually might be more effective than the “Joint Operations Space Cell” (JSPOC) the USAF established back in 1998.

You see, as much as the JSPOC sounds “joint,” because, after all, “joint” is in the cell’s name–it isn’t.  It’s all run by the USAF.  There are no Army or Navy officers or enlisted working in the the USAF’s center–at least not from what I’ve heard.  The JSPOC is great at being a self-licking ice cream cone, though.  And PowerPoint presentations.  Very meticulous, vetted-by-generals, PowerPoint presentations.

The USAF, after all, has a long history of being good with public affairs.  Have you ever seen the movie “Strategic Air Command?”  That was definitely created with the USAF’s blessing, putting the hard work and sacrifice of Airmen in the spotlight.  Guess who played the main character and was also a colonel in the Air Force Reserves?  If you said Jimmy Stewart, give yourself a gold star.  So the JSPOC is USAF business as usual.  But back to the ISC.

A closer analogy to the ISC might be the Joint Intelligence Community Council, although the council’s focus is on intelligence.  Also, there is no NASA representation–probably because the military and NASA are trying to keep NASA itself as a purely civilian and science-focused organization.  But it doesn’t mean NASA wouldn’t have any valuable input to space operations.

The ISC sounds like it’s a truly joint venture.  All three of India’s military arms, their Defense Research and Development Organization, and their Indian Space Research Organization (a kind of NASA equivalent) are involved, so while there may be conflicts in points of view within the ISC, there’s probably a true representation and communication of how space can help all players on the terrestrial battlefield for India.  That’s just me guessing, however.

And the Indians are concerned about Chinese activities.  Enough so that they are coming out of their “peaceful space activities” shell and seriously contemplating a regional missile defense.  The Diplomat’s post is an interesting read for those following space activities in India.  Maybe the Indians are watching the mis-steps the USAF have taken with their space focused organizations and activities, and maybe even learned from them.  But there are certain similarities there, for sure.  It was kind of a walk in history for me while reading the post.