Quantum leap: India’s vital role in new space age

By K Radhakrishnan

The success of Gaganyaan will enormously elevate India’s credentials for human spaceflights.

The world is at the dawn of a New Space Age. Humankind’s persistent quest to explore the universe and know more about life, new paradigms of a multipolar world emphasising international cooperation, setting aside their varied geopolitical aspirations and tensions, exponential advances in enabling technologies and a rapidly growing commercial space enterprise all drive this transformation.

There have been several success stories of bilateral and multilateral joint space missions, notably the International Space Station. What is significant for the future is The Global Exploration Roadmap for 2020-40 for human and robotic exploration of the Moon and Mars. This was drawn up through the collective wisdom of NASA, European Space Agency and national space agencies of Russia, Japan, China, India, France, Italy, Republic of Korea, Ukraine, the UAE and the UK, orchestrated under the banner of International Space Exploration Coordination Group.

Solar power generation through space platforms is a possibility. Exploitation of celestial resources (of the Moon, Mars and asteroids) is a nascent but exacting domain that entails space mining and downstream processing back on Earth. Building human habitats in the Moon and Mars with insitu resources is a dream but a distant possibility.

The primary engineering challenge is to build safe and reliable space transportation to lift a huge initial mass of 150-200 tonnes to a low-Earth orbit, execute a long space voyage (up to 1,000 days for a mission to Mars and back) and return flights to Earth with mined cargo of a few tonnes. Bioastronautics will take centre stage, especially in the wake of space tourism.

Humanity on Earth will tackle these challenges by leveraging its strengths. It will be imperative for India to take the rightful place in this emerging global setting. Satisfyingly, India too made a mark in this arena when Chandrayaan-1 was offered as a platform for lunar experiments of other space agencies. Similarly, the Megha-Tropiques satellite mission was jointly done by the Indian Space Research Organisation and the French Space Agency. The forthcoming NASAISRO Mission for Earth Observation using synthetic aperture radar is another example. India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, lauded internationally, was the opening for low-cost planetary missions. A judicious mix of human exploration and cognitive space robotics will be the future imperative.

Success of Gaganyaan will elevate India’s credentials for human spaceflights. Focussed research on cognitive space robotics should become a national priority. The next major challenge for India will be to be in the frontline in astrobiology (concerning origins, early evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe) and the development of novel scientific instruments.