General Studies IIISpace

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)

ISRO or Indian Space Research Organisation is India’s space agency founded in 1969 to help develop an indigenous Indian space program. It is one of the 6 largest space agencies in the world today. ISRO maintains one of the biggest fleets of remote sensing (IRS) and communication (INSAT) satellites catering to the needs of the nation through a network of centres, offices, and research institutes in different parts of the country. 

Formation of ISRO
  • The Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was established by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962 under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).
  • Eminent scientist Dr Vikram Sarabhai had a big role in this development. He understood the need for space research and was convinced of the role it can play in helping a nation develop.
  • INCOSPAR set up the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) at Thumba, near Thiruvananthapuram at India’s southern tip. TERLS is a spaceport used to launch rockets.
  • The INCOSPAR became ISRO in 1969.
  • The Department of Space was created in 1972 and ISRO became a part of it and remains so till date. The Space Department reports directly to the Prime Minister of the country.

ISRO has many facilities each dedicated to a specialised field of study in space. A few of them are as follows:

  • Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram
  • Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC), Thiruvananthapuram
  • Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC-SHAR), Sriharikota
  • Space Applications Centre (SAC), Ahmedabad
  • National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), Hyderabad
  • The space research activities were initiated in India under Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the founding father of Indian space programme, during 1960’s.
  • Since inception, the Indian space programme had three distinct elements such as, satellites for communication and remote sensing, the space transportation system and application programmes.
  • The INCOSPAR (Indian National Committee for Space Research) was initiated under the leadership of Dr. Sarabhai and Dr. Ramanathan.
  • During 1975-76, Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) was conducted. It was hailed as ‘the largest sociological experiment in the world’. It was followed by the ‘Kheda Communications Project (KCP)’, which worked as a field laboratory for need-based and locale specific programme transmission in state of Gujarat.
  • During this period, the first Indian spacecraft ‘Aryabhata’ was developed and was launched using a Soviet Launcher. Another major landmark was the development of the first launch vehicle SLV-3 with a capability to place 40 kg in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which had its first successful flight in 1980.
  • In the experimental phase during 80’s, Bhaskara-I & II missions were pioneering steps in the remote sensing area whereas ‘Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment (APPLE)’ became the forerunner for future communication satellite system.
  • During the operational phase in 90’s, major space infrastructure was created under two broad classes: one for the communication, broadcasting and meteorology through a multi-purpose Indian National Satellite system (INSAT), and the other for Indian Remote Sensing Satellite (IRS) system. The development and operationalisation of Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and development of Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) were significant achievements during this phase.


Communication Satellites
  • Established in 1983 with commissioning of INSAT-1B, the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) system is one of the largest domestic communication satellite systems in Asia-Pacific region with nine operational communication satellites placed in Geostationary orbit.
  • It initiated a major revolution in India’s communications sector and sustained the same later. The INSAT system provides services to telecommunications, television broadcasting, satellite newsgathering, societal applications, weather forecasting, disaster warning and Search and Rescue operations.
Earth Observation Satellites
  • Starting with IRS-1A in 1988, ISRO has launched many operational remote sensing satellites. Today, India has one of the largest constellations of remote sensing satellites in operation.
  • Varieties of instruments have been flown onboard these satellites to provide necessary data in a diversified spatial, spectral and temporal resolutions to cater to different user requirements in the country and for global usage.
  • The data from these satellites are used for several applications covering agriculture, water resources, urban planning, rural development, mineral prospecting, environment, forestry, ocean resources and disaster management.
Navigation Satellites
  • Satellite is an emerging satellite based system with commercial and strategic applications. Navigation services are necessary to meet the emerging demands of the Civil Aviation requirements and to meet the user requirements of the positioning, navigation and timing based on the independent satellite navigation system.
  • To meet the Civil Aviation requirements, ISRO is working jointly with Airport Authority of India (AAI) in establishing the GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation (GAGAN) system.
  • To meet the user requirements of the positioning, navigation and timing services based on the indigenous system, ISRO is establishing a regional satellite navigation system called Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS).
Space Science & Exploration Satellites

Indian space programme encompasses research in areas like astronomy, astrophysics, planetary and earth sciences, atmospheric sciences and theoretical physics. Satellites come under this category are:

  • AstroSat, was launched on September 28, 2015, by PSLV-C30 from Sriharikota. It is the first dedicated Indian astronomy mission aimed at studying celestial sources in X-ray, optical and UV spectral bands simultaneously. One of the unique features of AstroSat mission is that it enables the simultaneous multi-wavelength observations of various astronomical objects with a single satellite.
  • Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as (Mangalyaan),the truly maiden interplanetary mission of ISRO, launched on November 5, 2013, successfully got inserted into Martian orbit on September 24, 2014 in its first attempt. MOM completes 4 years in its orbit on September 24, 2018 though the designed mission life of MOM was six months. It was launched on board of PSLV C25 rocket with aim of studying Martian surface and mineral composition as well as scan its atmosphere for methane (an indicator of life on Mars). MOM is credited with many achievements like cost-effectiveness, short period of realization, economical weight-budget, miniaturization of five heterogeneous science payloads etc. Phobos and Deimos, the two moons of Mars were also imaged from close distances by Mars Colour Camera (MCC).
  • Chandrayaan-1, India’s first mission to moon, was an unmanned spacecraft along with 11 scientific payloads built in India, UK, USA, Germany, Bulgaria and Sweden. The mission comprised an orbiter and an impactor. Launched aboard PSLV-C11 by ISRO on October 22, 2008, the spacecraft was designed to study the Moon orbiting around it at a height of 100 km from the lunar surface. It had operated much less than the intended two years, but achieved more than 90% of its planned objectives.
  • Chandrayaan-2, India’s second mission to the Moon is a totally indigenous mission comprising of an Orbiter, Lander and Rover. Chandrayaan-2 is planned to launch in 2019 by GSLV-F10. After reaching the 100 km lunar orbit, the Lander housing the Rover will separate from the Orbiter. After a controlled descent, the Lander will soft land on the lunar surface at a specified site and deploy a Rover. The payloads will collect scientific information on lunar topography, mineralogy, elemental abundance, lunar exosphere and signatures of hydroxyl and water-ice.
Experimental Satellites

ISRO has launched many small satellites mainly for the experimental purposes. This experiment includes Remote Sensing, Atmospheric Studies, Payload Development, Orbit Controls, recovery technology etc.

Small Satellites

The small satellite project is providing platform for stand-alone payloads for earth imaging and science missions within a quick turnaround time. For making the versatile platform for different kinds of payloads, two kinds of buses have been configured and developed i.e. Indian Mini Satellite -1 (IMS-1) and Indian Mini Satellite -2 (IMS-2).

Academic Institute Satellites

ISRO has influenced educational institutions by its activities like making satellites for communication, remote sensing and astronomy. The launch of Chandrayaan-1 increased the interest of universities and institutions towards making experimental student satellites. Capable Universities and institution can venture into space technology on-orbit with guidance and support from ISRO by ways of Development of Payload and Design & Fabrication of Satellite.

India’s Manned Mission to Space
  • In December 2018, the Indian government has announced allocation of 100 billion rupees for first manned space mission, set to be launched by 2022. An unmanned test launch of the project is likely scheduled for December 2020.
  • Also termed as Gaganyaan, this project is part of the government’s ambition to make India a global low-cost provider of services in space.
  • The launch vehicle for this mission will carry heavy payloads into space. For this purpose, GSLV Mk-III is being developed with cryogenic engine.
  • ISRO has already tested the GSLV Mk-III with experimental crew module (Re-entry & Recovery technology) and Crew Escape System (CES).
  • A manned space mission is very difficult to launch in terms of complexity and need of advance technology.
Scramjet (Supersonic Combusting Ramjet) engine
  • In August 2016, ISRO has successfully conducted the Scramjet (Supersonic Combusting Ramjet) engine test.
  • The Scramjet engine uses Hydrogen as fuel and the Oxygen from the atmospheric air as the oxidiser.
  • This test was the maiden short duration experimental test of ISRO’s Scramjet engine with a hypersonic flight at Mach 6.
  • ISRO’s Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV), which is an advanced sounding rocket, was the solid rocket booster used for the test of Scramjet engines at supersonic conditions.
  • The new propulsion system will complement ISRO’s reusable launch vehicle that would have longer flight duration.

ISRO’s Launch Vehicles
  • PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) and GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) are the satellite-launch vehicles developed by ISRO.
  • PSLV delivers the “earth-observation” or “remote-sensing” satellites in polar orbit.
  • Apart from launching the remote sensing satellites to Sun-synchronous polar orbits, the PSLV is also used to launch the satellites of lower mass of about 1400 Kg to the elliptical Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO).
  • It is a four-staged launch vehicle with first and third stage using solid fuel and second and fourth stages using liquid fuel. Strap-on motors also used with PSLV to augment the thrust.
  • PSLV is classified into its various versions like core-alone version (PSLV-CA) or PSLV-XL variants.
  • GSLV delivers the communication-satellites to the Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) of about 36000 Km altitude.
  • Two versions of the GSLV are developed by ISRO and testing phase of third version is going on. The first version, GSLV Mk-II, has the capability to launch satellites of mass up to 2,500 kg to the GTO.
  • GSLV MK-II is a three-staged vehicle with first stage using solid fuel, second stage using Liquid fuel and the third stage, called Cryogenic Upper Stage, using cryogenic engine.
Challenges and Opportunities in front of India’s Space Program
  • India is still is a developing country with vast developmental and security concerns. In this context it is very difficult to justify the allocations for space missions that do not have a direct bearing on development.
  • Successful launched of MOM and a planned rover onto the moon surely boosted the Indian space program. But India’s reliance on satellites has created military vulnerabilities.
  • An anti-satellite missile (ASAT) tested by China in 2007 has also elevated the threat of a slow-moving arms race in space.
  • DRDO is working on development of missile defense but it is increasingly looking to partner with the United States and other countries.
  • China has launched satellites for Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2011 and 2012 respectively. This space cooperation may become another path for China to make inroads in South Asian countries.
  • During the starting of this decade India was highly critical of the EU effort to develop a code of conduct for outer space but in last years it has been actively engaged with the United States and the EU in particular in discussing a code of conduct and other safeguarding mechanisms.
  • India holds the view that reliance on the integration of outer space and cyber capabilities will only increase in future conflicts. But now beyond the maritime domain, India has been relying on foreign partners for many other satellite-based communications and data services. For instance, it continues to rely on NASA for deep space communications.
  • Privatization may also allow India to increase its launch capacity, which is currently at four to five per year while China does on average twenty or so launches. India does not have an explicit space policy to guide private sector participation.
  • ISRO also has internal constraints on its capacity to deliver.
  • The announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump in June 2018 about the creation of a “space force” or a sixth branch of the American armed forces has worried many including India. While India is officially committed to PAROS, or the prevention of an arms race in outer space, it is yet to formulate a credible official response to such plans. India has yet to establish a credible space command of its own.
  • In this context China’s reaction could be much stronger than its seemingly muted official response and it does possess a formidable space military programme that far exceeds current Indian capabilities.
  • Globally entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Richard Branson began talking of space activities as independent profitable commercial ventures that can be termed as New Space revolution.
Space industry and challenges

Emerging trends in space industry
  • The price for reaching low Earth orbit has declined by a factor of 20 in a decade.
  • It enhances human space travel possibilities by leveraging new commercial capabilities.
  • According to a Bank of America Report, the $350 billion space market today will touch $2.7 trillion by 2050.
  • Starlink, the constellation being constructed by SpaceX to provide global Internet access, plans more than 10,000 mass-produced small satellites in low Earth orbit. 
  •  In a decade, 80,000 such satellites could be in space compared to less than 3,000 at present.
  • Companies such as Planet, Spire Global and Iceye are using orbital vantage points to collect and analyse data to deliver fresh insights in weather forecasting, global logistics, crop harvesting and disaster response.
  • Space could prove attractive for high-tech manufacturing too.
  • In short, an exciting new platform is opening up for entrepreneurs.
1) Governance of outer space
  • Framework for governance of outer space as it becomes democratised, commercialised and crowded is becoming obsolescent.
  • The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 enshrines the idea that space should be “the province of all mankind” and “not subject to national appropriation by claims of sovereignty”.
  • The Rescue Agreement, Space Liability Convention, and the Space Registration Convention expanded provisions of the Outer Space Treaty.
  • The Moon Treaty of 1979 was not ratified by major space-faring nations.
  • Space law does not have a dispute settlement mechanism, is silent on collisions and debris, and offers insufficient guidance on interference with others’ space assets.
  • These gaps heighten the potential for conflict in an era of congested orbits and breakneck technological change.
2) Acknowledging role of non-state entities
  • The legal framework related to outre space is state-centric, placing responsibility on states alone.
  • However, non-state entities are now in the fray for commercial space exploration and utilisation.
  • Some states are providing frameworks for resource recovery through private enterprises.
  • Some scholars and governments view this as against the principle of national non-appropriation, violating the spirit if not the letter of the existing space law.
  • The lack of alignment of domestic and international normative frameworks risks a damaging free-for-all competition for celestial resources involving actors outside the space framework.
3) The arms race in outer space
  • The space arms race is difficult to curb, especially since almost all space technologies have military applications.
  • For example, satellite constellations are commercial but governments could acquire their data to monitor military movements.
  • Investment in technologies that can disrupt or destroy space-based capabilities is under way.
  • Despite concerns about military activity in outer space for long, not much progress has been made in addressing them.
  • The UN General Assembly passes a resolution on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space since 1982.
  • The current geopolitical situation does not hold hope for addressing concerns of a space arms race.
Need for space legislation in India
  • India has invested enormous resources in its space programme through the Indian Space Research Organisation.
  • More importantly, our space assets are crucial for India’s development.
  • The proposed involvement of private players and the creation of an autonomous body IN-SPACe for permitting and regulating activities of the private sector are welcome efforts.
  • However, the space environment that India faces requires us to go beyond meeting technical milestones.
  • We need a space legislation enabling coherence across technical, legal, commercial, diplomatic and defence goals.

Now the time has come for a more structured approach that enables better incubation for young talent in India. Fortunately, Antrix is open to such ideas. Various policies and acts need to change from being restrictive to being enabling.

Our space vision also needs to address global governance, regulatory and arms control issues. As space opens up our space vision needs broadening too.

Planned Missions of ISRO in the coming years

1- Chandrayan-3:

  • It is expected to launch in 2021 and is a successor to the Chandrayan-2 mission.
  • The mission will attempt a soft landing on the lunar surface and will have Lunar lander and rover.
  • According to ISRO, the total cost of the Chandrayan-3 mission will be more than 600 crores.

2- Gaganyaan:

  • India’s first human spaceflight mission is expected to launch in the year 2021.
  • The Gaganyaan orbital vehicle will carry three Indian astronauts to the low earth orbit — an orbit of 2,000km or less — for a period of five to seven days.
  • The spacecraft is jointly made by ISRO and HAL.


  • ISRO’s Lunar Polar Exploration Mission in collaboration with JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) will be launched in the year 2024.
  • The mission aims at obtaining the actual data related to the quantity and forms of water present on the surface of the Moon to determine the feasibility of utilizing such resources for sustainable space exploration activities in the future.

4- Aditya-L1:

  • It is India’s first solar mission and was expected to launch in the year 2020 but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the launch has been delayed and is now expected in the year 2022.
  • The mission aims at studying solar corona in visible and near IR bands.  

5- RISAT-1A:

  • It is expected to launch in the year 2021 by ISRO.
  •  It is a radar-imaging satellite and will be similar to RISAT-1 satellite in terms of configuration.
  • It is a land-based mission for terrain mapping and analysis of land, ocean and water surface for soil moisture.


  • NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) is expected to be launched in the year 2022 by ISRO in collaboration with NASA (US Space Agency).
  •  It aims at studying global environmental change and natural disasters and will be the first dual-band (L & S) radar imaging satellite.
  •  NISAR satellite is likely to be the world’s most expensive Earth-imaging satellite to date with an expected cost of $1.5 billion.
  • The mission is expected to have a life of three years.

7- Mangalyaan-2:

  • Mars Orbiter Mission 2 (MOM 2) also called Mangalyaan 2 is expected to launch in the year 2024.
  •  It is India’s second interplanetary mission to Mars by ISRO.
  • It will consist of an orbiter and may include a lander and a rover.

8- Shukrayaan-1:

  • The inter-planetary mission is expected to launch in the year 2025 by ISRO in collaboration with CNES (National Centre for Space Studies; French Space Agency).
  •  It is a proposed mission to study the atmosphere of the planet Venus– the second planet from Sun and the hottest planet of our solar system.
  •  In the year 2018, India and France issued a ‘Joint Vision for Space Cooperation’.

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