S. Somnath Has been at the helm of ISRO for over a year. In his previous role, he was the Director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, and before that he was the Director, Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.
An expert in launch vehicle systems engineering, he contributed to PSLV and GSLV Mk-III in development of overall architecture, propulsion stage design, structural dynamic design, separation system, vehicle integration and integration methodology.
He spoke about ISRO’s priorities during the week, including the upcoming launch of Chandrayaan-3 and Aditya L1 and the Gaganyaan mission and ISRO’s international collaboration.
Q/ What are ISRO’s priorities in 2023?
a/ We have already started our launch program (for 2023) with the launch of SSLV D2 (the second developmental flight of the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, which launches satellites weighing up to 500 kg). During the first mission – SSLV D1 – we could not place the satellite in a stable orbit. The second mission was successful. All satellites were placed in orbit and all of them are doing well. We have plans to increase production of SSLVs in the coming years
But more important launches are coming. We are ready for the second launch of the OneWeb (foreign private company) satellite mission, for which we are committed through NSIL (the commercial arm of NewSpace India Limited-ISRO). May launch on March 26. We are preparing for commercial launch of PSLV. In addition to this we plan to launch four to five additional PSLVs before March 2024.
The most important thing we are going to do this year is the launch of Chandrayaan-3 in June or July. Its satellite is almost ready; Only secondary, pending final examination. There is another important mission called Aditya L1, which aims to study the Sun. It will be launched using PSLV. Currently, the satellite is in the integration phase; Its critical payload is delivered.
We intend to launch the next series of NavIC satellites this year – possibly five more satellites These are new generation navigation satellites with features like L1 band (civilian mobile band). NavIC will be launched with GSLV, which failed in its last mission. So, we want to come back with a successful GSLV launch. With all these missions, we do about one launch a month.
Question / What is the status of Gaganyan mission?
a/ Gaganyaan abort TV D1 (Test Vehicle Demonstration 1) mission is a big-ticket mission for us. We will use a new rocket called Experimental Vehicle. We need to launch about 14 km and then trigger an abort. This is the track. For Gaganyan mission, we will try to complete big work this year and next year. We are targeting late 2024 for the mission. Of course, this will depend on the success of what we are doing now.
Q/ What is the status of astronaut training for Gaganyaan mission? Is there talk that astronauts will go to NASA for further training?
a/ The Russian leg of training is over. Astronauts are helping design and build the crew module as they now have experience with the Russian approach. They attend classes from experts and are trained in a simulator. There is a special training that will be a little later. For this they will all go back to Russia. This will probably precede the mission flight.
Currently, we have an astronaut training facility adjacent to our satellite center in Bangalore, where astronauts undergo fitness and simulator training. NASA has come to us to train our astronauts for missions and flights to the International Space Station. But we are yet to decide on that.
Q/ Can you shed more light on the Aditya L1 mission?
A/ We expect to launch the Aditya L-1 mission by June-July. The work has been going on for many years and is a complex payload developed by various institutes such as Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Space Applications Center and UR Rao Satellite Centre.
Q/ What are ISRO’s initiatives to promote more commercial launches? What kind of collaborations can we expect with startups and private players in the space?
A/ NSIL will continue to offer launch vehicles available for commercial launches. Demand for launches is high. NSIL will also develop satellites for commercial launch. The satellites built are for Tata Play. NSIL will also work on hand-held devices for communication systems and is developing ground stations for clients.
Today, India has hundreds of startups in the space segment. We have created a new entity called InSpace, which is helping these startups connect with ISRO. We have plans to connect startups with financial support systems and use some of the ISRO products. At the same time, we are transferring technology to industries and startups. If it is a commercial technology, we transfer it through NSIL. If it’s a technology that startups need, it’s done through Inspace.
Q/ What kind of international cooperation are you looking for?
a/ International cooperation takes many forms. We have cooperation with 64 countries. We are jointly developing NISAR – a navigation satellite – with NASA We also worked with NASA for Chandrayaan-1. We have an engagement with the French agency CNES; We have collaborated with them to develop satellites and payloads. We also have a lot of cooperation with Russia in our rocket design, testing, cryogenic engines and procurement of materials and technology. Similarly, we have cooperation with Japan, Germany and Sweden. With Australia, this is a recent engagement where (Australian companies) have offered funding to startups and companies in India for joint development of space systems.
Q/ Please elaborate on your agreement with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Bharat Electronics Limited.
A/ NSIL has signed an agreement with HAL as the prime contractor for the construction of five PSLVs. This is a manufacturing, end-to-end manufacturing contract. The work is just starting and HAL is also taking help from other companies who have teams who are building our rockets like L&T and other manufacturing companies. In another 24 months, they will build the first Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and launch it commercially. On the other hand, BEL is doing a lot of work for us at ground stations and for ground equipment, our network, hand-held devices and antennas.
Q/ Any steps towards further collaboration with higher education and research institutes?
A/ We have traditional relationships with many higher education institutions. ISRO has benefited immensely from IISc and IITs. We have strong links with IIT Mumbai, IIT Kanpur, IIT Kharagpur, IIT Madras and IIT Delhi. We have created space technology cells in many of these IITs – we give annual grants for research. We have also started space technology incubation facilities at NITs and IITs. We have a total of 300-400 research projects in the country.
Q/ Is ISRO working on new technologies for the future?
a/ We are currently working on around 1,500 new technology areas and are in progress at our various centres. We are in many areas such as new materials development, nano materials, new chemical formulations, new devices in radio frequency and microwave, electrical propulsion, nuclear thermal propulsion and cryogenic propulsion. We use artificial intelligence in multiple areas such as materials, data processing, security, manufacturing and mission design. We also develop many technologies for satellites, such as light-weight structures, bus structures for satellites, electronics architecture, power bus architecture, battery technology and power management technology. We also work on technology in optical systems for which we have a laboratory for electro-optic systems. Our Space Applications Center is working on deployable mirrors, antenna systems and high resolution detectors.
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