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Geospatial Opportunities with Gaganyaan

The announcement by Prime Minister Modi on Independence Day that India will put an Indian in space from an Indian launch pad on an Indian spacecraft Gaganyaan by 2022 has created a huge debate online. Young entrepreneurs from New Space India are looking forward to innovative opportunities. Others are debating whether the chance to be a fourth country to send humans to space is really worth it. I would like to look at it from a different angle – the view from space.

The charm of looking at the earth from space was ignited by TIROS, the Television Infra Red Observation Satellite launched in 1960 which sent back marvellous pictures of cloud formations from space. In 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth in a space capsule. Astronauts and cosmonauts who followed Gagarin would excitedly describe the view of the earth from space and soon began to carry handheld cameras to take pictures of what they saw.

The erstwhile USSR began a formal programme of space photography on board their Salyut space stations using cameras like the MKF-6M for multispectral imaging and KATE-140, a wide angle, stereographic, topographical camera for making contour maps. India’s first cosmonaut, Rakesh Sharma used the MKF-6M to image “Sare Jahan se Achcha”. These pictures wound their way to ISRO for interpretation and use. It has been extravagantly claimed by the media that it saved two years of aerial photography. A tall order since the resolution was about 20 metre.

The fact of the matter is that a one-off set of imagery really does not help much unless there is a continuity. Sure, they form a part of a set if one takes into account other sources, but then there are the matters of compatibility of the media, registration and even the variations between the spectral bands. Is the effort really worth it unless there is continuity? Satellites provide a continuity at a lower cost and with higher efficiency.

Turning to Gaganyaan, all that we know is that it will be a 10 day low earth orbit flight with three vyomnauts with no follow on programme. India does have some excellent CCD sensors developed by ISRO used in the IRS series of satellites. Given that we already have state of the art sensors on board satellites with resolutions ranging from 50m to sub-metre, I do not see much to be gained from onboard earth photography. I also do not see India developing a state of the art film camera or even a digital space photography camera which could be flown on a one-off mission.

Lastly, human in space programme had many dimensions other than launches and space capsules. Biology and psychology are two big component. The training of humans for space activity is a big task. Earlier the Unit of Aerospace Medicine was used to train our cosmonauts and astronauts. Will these facilities be enough? What about the issues of ergonomics, diet, waste disposal and so on?

Gaganyaan has nothing to do with any of the established space applications. It is all about establishing a foothold on what may soon become a reality – the colonisation and exploitation of celestial bodies. It may be recalled how in 1981 India established its own station on Antarctica named Dakshin Gangotri. India did this so as to become a signatory of the Antarctic Treaty in 1983 and thus establish its right to conduct scientific and other research activities on the continent. An unstated subtext is that if and when Antarctica is opened up for exploitation of its resources, India will have a slice of the pie. The same rationale applies here. Today, like Antarctica, Space and its celestial bodies are protected by a similar philosophy that they are for “all humanity”. But with the growing trend of colonisation of the Moon and Mars, India would like to establish its own space equivalent of Dakshin Gangotri.

One-off Gaganyaan is not enough. We need an Indian Space station and more probes to the Moon, Mars and perhaps to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn where water has been found. We already have planted (better word would be crashed!) an Indian flag on the moon. The moon rover is due. Mars is next with a rover. That has to be our Dakshin Gangotri.

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