By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
This article is the third of a five-part series profiling the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). This series looks at the past, present, and future of ISRO and why the global space exploration community should keep an eye on this rising star. This article examines ISRO’s space mission history and some of the most important projects that ISRO undertook from its inception up through 2010.
Despite the fact that ISRO was a little late to the party in the earliest days of space exploration – having only been created around the time the United States was already putting astronauts on the Moon – India has come a long way in terms of space research progress. To date, ISRO has conducted 109 different space missions and launched 77 different projects with its own rocket vehicles.
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ISRO Has an Impressive Track Record throughout The Years
ISRO’s first-ever space mission was a simple satellite called Aryabhata. India designed and built this satellite – but launched it atop a Soviet rocket – in 1975.
Aryabhata contained a basic sensor and communication array for experimental purposes, and ISRO monitored it for about six months after launch. However, the spacecraft remained in orbit for almost 17 years, finally burning up on reentry in 1992.
The second mission of ISRO was an Earth remote-sensing satellite called Bhaskara-I, launched in 1979. Like Aryabhata, Bhaskara-I was built in India and launched by the Soviets.
It was equipped with TV cameras, and the images those cameras collected were primarily used for hydrology and forestry science research. Bhaskara-I’s mission lasted one year, but it remained in orbit for about a decade.
ISRO also attempted to launch the Rohini Technology Payload (RTP) in 1979, which was an experimental test probe. However, the SLV rocket that launched Rohini failed during ascent, so the mission never made it to orbit.
In 1981, ISRO launched the Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment (APPLE), which was India’s first self-built, experimental communications spacecraft. This mission was launched by the European Space Agency’s Ariane rocket vehicle, on its third-ever launch mission.
This spacecraft consisted of VHF and C-band communication hardware. Over a two-year mission life, it tested a variety of communication processes in preparation for subsequent missions.
In 1988, ISRO launched the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite 1A (IRS-1A), the first of a series of satellites to be used for Earth observation and research. From the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Soviets launched it into a polar sun-synchronous orbit.
IRS-1A’s total operational mission lasted more than eight years. Over that time, it collected a wealth of data to help ISRO with Earth-based research objectives.
ISRO Had Only a Few Launch and Orbit Failures That Occurred in the 1980s
In the 1980s, ISRO experienced only two launch failures, both with the ASLV rocket. These were the Stretched Rohini Satellite Series (SROSS) 1 and 2 missions. ASLV proved to be a tricky launch vehicle for India to get right, and it would not be until 1992 that a successful orbiting would be achieved from it.
ISRO also weathered some in-orbit failures in the 1980s. INSAT-1A, launched in 1982, was abandoned after it ran out of attitude control propellant. INSAT-1C, launched in 1988, was rendered partially inoperable when one of its power supplies failed and shut down half of its sensors and communications equipment.
ISRO Missions in the 1990s and 2000s
Over the course of the 1990s, ISRO launched a total of 15 different missions dedicated to various Earth observation and communications objectives. Only one launch failed – IRS-1E, mounted atop a PSLV rocket – in 1993.
All other launches successfully made their way to orbit and completed their mission objectives to different degrees. INSAT-2D, launched in 1997, experienced a power bus failure after just three months in orbit and its mission was ultimately cut short by this problem.
The 2000s were a better decade for ISRO. It launched 23 different missions, with most still focused on communications and Earth observation. Quite a few missions were specifically dedicated to climate and environmental research.
Only one mission – the INSAT-4C communications satellite – experienced a launch failure in 2006. The GSLV rocket it was riding in was unable to reach orbit. Still, this single failure gave India a 96 percent success rate across the decade.
In 2009, India launched the first of the Radar Imaging Satellite series: RISAT-2. These satellites use synthetic aperture radar that allows them to take high-resolution images of the Earth’s surface in day or night, even through cloud cover and other visible light obstructions.
Although these satellites are often used for weather tracking and disaster management, they are also allocated for use in national security surveillance by the Indian Air Force. ISRO later added three more satellites to the RISAT network.
Also of particular importance in the 2000s was ISRO’s Chandrayaan-1 mission to the Moon. This was the first mission that ISRO ever sent to another celestial body in the solar system.
Chandrayaan-1 was launched aboard a PSLV rocket in 2008. It was put into a lunar orbit, and ISRO used the probe’s 11 different scientific instruments to study Earth’s orbiting neighbor.
Chandrayaan-1’s mission length was intended to be two years. But after a few months, the spacecraft began to experience unexpected problems with star tracking and thermal regulation. At 312 days in orbit, mission controllers lost contact with the probe.
However, during its operational mission time, Chandryaan-1 circled the Moon more than 3,400 times at altitudes between 100 km and 200 km. It made detailed chemical, mineralogical and geological maps of the lunar surface during this time. Despite its early demise, the mission still achieved most of its objectives and was considered a qualified success.
In the next installment of this article series, we’ll look at ISRO’s accomplishments during the 2010s, which turned out to be some of the biggest achievements in its history.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.