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PSLV launch
An Indian PSLV lifts off November 7 on the first launch by ISRO since last December. (credit: ISRO)

How ISRO handled the pandemic


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On November 7, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully undertook a ten-satellite launch. ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, in its 51st flight (PSLV-C49), successfully launched EOS-01 along with nine international customer satellites. This was the first launch for ISRO this year. EOS-01 is an Earth observation satellite, intended for applications in agriculture, forestry and disaster management support, and should become operational in the coming days.

ISRO had found it tough to undertake satellite launches during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It is obvious that rocket launching cannot be a “work from home” activity.

EOS-01 is a new name given by ISRO for RISAT, or Radar Imaging Satellite. RISAT is a series of all-weather Earth observation radar imaging reconnaissance satellites built by ISRO. They provide all-weather surveillance using synthetic aperture radar (SAR). Development of this satellite series can be attributed to a major terror attack on Indian soil. There was a realization in India after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, which killed around 170 civilians, that satellites with optical and spectral sensors have limitations at night and during bad weather. That could be why ten terrorists could enter Mumbai via a sea route to undertake terror attacks. Hence, to meet those immediate security concerns, Indian launched a satellite with Israel’s help called RISAT-2 (2009) which used an Israel Aerospace Industries X-band SAR.

In 2012, Indian launched an indigenously developed satellite with a SAR sensor, called RISAT-1. This was followed by RISAT-2B and RISAT-2BR1 in 2019. Logically, EOS-01 should have been named RISAT-2BR2. However, now ISRO appears to be moving towards a new naming system, possibly trying to combine all Earth observation satellites under this new category. There are indications that ISRO could be launching ten such satellites in this series in quick succession.

Another, important aspect of this launch is that nine customer satellites were launched under commercial agreement with NewSpace India Limited (NSIL). This is a second commercial arm (Antrix Corporation is the first, created in 1992) of ISRO that has been established by the government of India just a year back to progress the space business. The nine customer satellites are from Lithuania (1), Luxembourg (4) and USA (4).

It appears that agencies other than ISRO probably adjusted to the “new normal” very effectively. Among major space agencies, it is only ISRO that could not manage even a single launch for almost 11 months.

ISRO had found it tough to undertake satellite launches during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It is obvious that rocket launching cannot be a “work from home” activity. ISRO has many centers spread across the country that are involved in the various activities associated with launching satellites. When the entire country was under lockdown, it was difficult for ISRO to undertake activities within and among its centers. Also, there were difficulties for customers who launched their satellites on the PSLV-C49 mission. Their engineers and other staff had to undergo the customary quarantine after reaching India. The pandemic has made logistical supplies and traveling very difficult.

The problems were far too many and ISRO took its own time to decipher them. Now, the success of the PSLV-C49 launch indicates that ISRO was able to ensure the safety of its own employees and that of technicians from other nations, but at the same time did not make any professional compromises.

The rest of the world also must have faced similar problems as that of ISRO while launching their own satellites. However, it appears that agencies other than ISRO probably adjusted to the “new normal” very effectively. Among major space agencies, it is only ISRO that could not manage even a single launch for almost 11 months. It is noteworthy that despite the unprecedented Covid-19 challenges, globally many of the planned satellite launches still took place with some minor scheduling variations.

For example, China and the United States have each performed more than 30 orbital launches so far this year. There has been about a 25% increase in the number of launches during the year 2020. Three human missions to International Space Station (ISS) also took place during the ongoing pandemic, with a fourth set to launch this month.

The ongoing pandemic could force a reassessment of some of ISRO’s priorities, but this pause in launches is simply unaffordable.

There is no authentic information available that how countries like the US and China (and, to some extent, even Russia) have managed to overcome the issues related with pandemic to ensure maintaining their launch schedule. However, where ISRO appears to have lagged is quickly figuring out how they should develop processes during the pandemic in order to carry forward their work. There was a need for ISRO to create a “social bubble” of scientists and technicians at their laboratories. It’s been demonstrated that such a bubble helps to expand the number of people with whom a particular group of people feel comfortable to work with. Clustering contacts outside the family into exclusive bubbles is an effective strategy for work where humans are expected to work in close proximity with each other. It is important to manage such bubbles by taking due safety precautions. This social bubble is not a new idea and before the pandemic it was considered more as an idea to get likeminded people to work together to undertake a particular task. The exclusive nature of such bubbles helps to complete a task more effectively.

Interestingly, another Indian agency, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which deals with missile launches, was able to undertake their tasks effectively during the same period. There was a lull in their missile launches for few months, but during a 35-day period in September and October, DRDO undertook 10 successful missile launches. A few missile launches also took place in earlier months.

Globally, there has been a realization that, pandemic or no pandemic, satellite launches should continue because it is a technology that helps humans immensely. Over the years, ISRO has clearly identified its tasks for social, scientific, strategic, and commercial sectors. The ongoing pandemic could force a reassessment of some of their priorities, but this pause in launches is simply unaffordable. There could be challenges, of course, but still the show must go on.


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