Wednesday, September 24, 2014

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MARS Mission Accomplished - Is Desi GPS Next ?

Amidst all the border disputes, domestic tensions and everyday problems, there are very few days when you wake up in morning to claps and smiles across all channels and media - Successful placement of Mangalyaan in Mars Orbit. 



It definitely was a happy start to this day and I was always excited about this special vehicle ( read my article when it was launched -  Mangalyaan – Off to the Red Planet: Are we?) which along with it was going to take Indian Space Program to next level. A country knows to the world as a land of snake charmers and Slumdog, it definitely was a slap on face of to all those who were part of denying India a super computer in 1980. Today 34 years later, we become the only country to have put a satellite in orbit of Mars in its first attempt. Measure it against 6 attempts taken for similar fate by NASA, agency of the country indicated in the previous sentence. On top of it this was done at about one tenth the cost and this was brilliantly elucidated by the figure of Rs. 7 per KM which is lower than what an auto (cheaper version of taxi) in India costs. It was difficult for this topic to not come up during our usual lunch gossip and while most of us were gushing about this achievement of ISRO, one of us remarked –
This is such a waste of time, effort and money! Completely wrong priorities of ISRO…..When we rely for our GPS systems on foreigners, is this right investment
Though I do not personally agree to the remark as I believe these are neither mutually exclusive nor contradictory goals and one could not be measured against the other. This was a brilliant illustrator of technological capability in the field and any results that it produces would help Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) establish its feet in the field of Space Exploration and assert its capabilities to the world. Having achieved this success is definitely is notable milestone. However, the statement was not without merit and definitely worth a thought. Today’s accomplishment has definitely proved the caliber of Indian scientist and it is time that these great minds now gift, at least, our military an indigenous navigational system.

In case one is wondering why this is critical, navigation guides are a critical defense capability on which our troops depend for their movement. If such an important capability is owned by foreign countries, it makes our defense preparedness vulnerable to their will. In case we find ourselves in conflict with allies of those countries, we may find our forces lacking this technology. When India noticed the Pakistani troops’ deep incursions in Kargil in 1999 India asked for American help and sought GPS data of the region to get the big picture of the threat. However, the Americans refused to cooperate citing their proximity to Islamabad.
Geopolitical needs teach you that some countries can deny you the service in times of conflict. It's also a way of arm twisting and a country should protect itself against that, - S Ramakrishnan, director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.
Apart from the military use, such systems are useful in land, sea and air navigation, disaster management, vehicle tracking and fleet management, provision of precise time, mapping, and navigation aid for hikers and travelers. Hence it is imminent for us to work towards achieving self-reliance in this field. I had a gut feeling that it isn’t possible that our authorities would have overlooked such an issue and I was right. ISRO is already working towards the goal of domestically controlled satellite navigation system - Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS). IRNSS is an Indian navigation system designed to provide real time position, navigation and time (abbreviated as PNT) services for both civilian and military uses. Indian government has approved the IRNSS project at a total cost of Rs. 1420.00 crores in May 2006 for both space and ground infrastructure.

IRNSS program is designed around a constellation of 7 satellites along with four spare satellites to ensure continued navigation facilities even in case of unpredictable mishaps. These space components would be supported by complementary ground facilities consisting of ground stations for generation and transmission of navigation parameters, satellite control and monitoring. A total of 20 stations are planned, including two Master Control Stations (MCS), most of them located at airports along with GAGAN (an indigenously developed aircraft navigation system) ground controls. The navigation software to be used for extending IRNSS services is also being indigenously developed at ISRO Satellite Centre. And to answer questions regarding if this dream would actually come to life, two satellites - IRNSS-1A and IRNSS-1B - have been already launched. IRNSS-1C, IRNSS-1D, IRNSS-1E are scheduled to be launched during FY 2014-15 on board PSLVs. PSLV is the same vehicle platform used to put the Mangalyaan into space. By the middle of 2015, the IRNSS is expected to be able to provide GPS services to Indian users. In words of ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan who by the way is IIM Bangalore alumnus (obviously another reason to be proud of),
By March 2015, we would have five of the total seven satellites on orbit. We can start using benefits of IRNSS with four satellites on orbit, but all seven would give a better coverage.
Having proved their mettle in the field of space science, the entire country now looks forward to using a home-made system on our mobiles (that is how we relate to GPS) for find ways across the maze our cities have turned into and feeling that extra gush of pride in being Indian by using Indian.

What are your views on this achievement? Do you think these 450 crore bucks could have been better utilized elsewhere? Say it if you feel it as the comments section below if all about your views and my replies !!

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