India plans own space station

The Indian Space Research Organisation announced its plan to set up India’s own space station five to seven years after successfully launching its first manned mission by December 2021, expanding the country’s ambitious plan to increase its imprint in space.

The space station, which will be developed indigenously, will weigh around 20 tonnes and house astronauts for about 15 to 20 days in a 400 km low earth orbit, where most of the man-made objects are located.

“India will set up its own space station as an extension of the human spaceflight programme. We will be sending Indian astronauts to space in December 2021, but just one flight is not enough to sustain the programme. The next logical step is setting up a space station and then sending a manned mission to the moon. We have a very clear plan,” said Isro chief K Sivan.

The International Space Station is the only such facility currently functioning in the earth’s low orbit, flying 400 km above the surface to make a complete circuit of our planet in 90 minutes. The 360-tonne space laboratory has been set up in partnership by the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and European counties. It has room for a crew of six people to carry out an array of scientific experiments.

At a news briefing in New Delhi on Thursday, the Isro chief said the Indian space station will not have any link to the ISS. “We are planning to have a separate space station… Our space station is going to be very small. We will be launching a small module, and that will be used for carrying out microgravity experiments,” Sivan said. “We are not having a big plan of sending humans on tourism and other things,” he added. The Indian space agency on Thursday also set the deadline for its solar mission Aditya L1, scheduled to be launched in the first half of 2020. Sivan said India also plans to launch a Venus mission in 2023. The announcements came a day after Isro said its second lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, was expected to be launched on July 15 for a touchdown on the moon around September 6. The first Indian lunar mission was sent in 2008. Having a space station is essential for collecting meaningful scientific data, especially for biological experiments.

“The Gaganyaan will take humans and experiments in microgravity to space for seven days and demonstrate technology that will be crucial to understand how many people can stay on board the space station and for how long. However, long-term data can only be gathered by setting up a space station,” a senior Isro scientist said, asking not to be named.

Sivan said the preliminary plan for the space station was to accommodate astronauts for 15-20 days in space. While there was no word on the estimated cost of the mission, the Isro chief said a proposal on the mission would be sent to the government for approval after the manned space flight is successfully completed.

Last December, the Union Cabinet approved the Rs.10,000-crore Gaganyaan mission as India moved a step closer to sending humans to space by 2022, a deadline announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his Independence Day address in 2018.

The plan is to launch two unmanned missions in December 2020 and July 2021, before the final mission in December 2021 to send three Indians into space. Isro’s heaviest launch vehicle, GSLV Mk-III, will take the astronauts to a low earth orbit in 16 minutes. The astronauts will then stay in the orbit for a maximum of seven days.

The Indian space agency plans to initially set up one module of the space station that will be approximately double the size of Gaganyaan. “The construction of a space station is essentially modular, and can be extended in the future. After successfully demonstrating the space station, India will be open to international partners,” the Isro scientist quoted above said.

The first component of the ISS was launched into orbit in 1998 and first long-term residents arrived at the facility in November 2000.

The selection of crew members for the first Indian manned mission to space, scheduled for December 2021, is currently in progress under a committee headed by the Isro chief. The Gaganyaan has a crew capacity of three people. “For the first few manned missions, crew members would be selected from among the Indian Air Force’s test pilots, after which it will be open to civilians. The selection procedure for the current lot is mainly looking at the psychological aspects,” said the scientist.

Once selected, the first batch of four to six people will be trained for up to two years, initially in India for basic and module training, followed by advanced training at a foreign location. India is currently in talks with the US, Russia, and the European space programmes for the second leg of the training.

The solar mission Aditya L1 will be placed in an orbit around the sun at the Lagrangian point 1 (L1), 1.5 million kilometres from Earth. L1 is a point between the sun and earth where the gravitational force felt by the satellite will be equal to the centrifugal force and will help study the sun continuously without any eclipses. “The mission is already at a very advanced stage and the satellite will be sent to the L1 point between earth and sun, where it will continuously face the sun and study the corona. The seven payloads on board will study the radiations emitted from the sun. It will also study the long-term impact on climate change for 10 years, or almost one solar cycle,” said Dipankar Banerjee, professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and a collaborator on the mission.

The Venus mission will have 12 Indian and international science payloads, including a thermal camera, mass spectrometer and a cloud-monitoring camera. The satellite will focus on studying the surface and sub-surface of the planet, atmospheric chemistry, and the interactions with the sun’s radiation or solar winds.

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