“NISAR is a joint Earth-observing mission between NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) with the goal to make global measurements of the causes and consequences of land surface changes using advanced radar imaging.”
“The NISAR mission concept and the partnership between NASA and ISRO are in response to the National Academy of Science’s 2007 survey of Earth observational priorities for the next decade, known as the decadal survey. One of the top priorities identified in this survey was to gain data and insight in three Earth science domains: ecosystems, deformation of Earth’s crust and cryospheric sciences.”
“As NASA and ISRO discussed the possibility of a joint radar mission, it became clear that this goal was of great interest to the ISRO science community.”
“On Sept. 30, 2014, NASA and ISRO signed a partnership to collaborate and launch NISAR. The mission is targeted to launch in early 2023. NASA is providing the mission’s L-band synthetic aperture radar, a high-rate communication subsystem for science data, GPS receivers, a solid-state recorder and payload data subsystem. ISRO is providing the spacecraft bus, the S-band radar, the launch vehicle and associated launch services.” (Click for reference).
The NASA-ISRO SAR (NISAR) Mission will measure Earth’s changing ecosystems, dynamic surfaces, and ice masses providing information about biomass, natural hazards, sea level rise, and groundwater, and will support a host of other applications. NISAR will observe Earth’s land and ice-covered surfaces globally with 12-day regularity on ascending and descending passes, sampling Earth on average every 6 days for a baseline 3-year mission. NASA is currently initiating the formulation phase for the core observatory. (Credit NASA)
Inquiries have revealed that NASA was originally reluctant to include S band SAR. In 2016, they put severe pressure to remove S-band SAR through very top hierarchy of ISRO. But somehow rest of the project team opposed this move and development of S band was continued. In past 9 months, S band SAR was integrated at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratpry (JPL). But it is rumoured that the S-SAR payload delivered to JPL by ISRO had severe electromagnetic leakage, making it unworthy of launch. It is also rumoured that with such performance, dropping of S-band SAR is the only possibility.
ISRO need to come out categorically in public with the status of test and evaluation of S band SAR in the presence of L band SAR provided by JPL-NASA. If the performance of S band SAR is below expectation, ISRO should solve nagging technical issues rather than dropping their own baby. They must ensure their commitment that S band SAR should fly in NISAR.
In between, Rakesh Bhan, the Associate Project Director of NISAR, the person officially designated to lead S-band SAR, has got linked with a Startup called Canopus Space. It has two Directors, one of them is Shanoo Raina, his wife. But curiously the mail address of the company is email@example.com, in the name of her husband. She is a graduate in Arts and has no locus standi in SAR technology or data. Clearly putting the name of her husband in the email address is an indirect way of indicating to the potential investors and customers who the real person behind this company. The other director is Namrata Verma, daughter in law of Rakesh and Rashmi Verma, the owners of MapmyIndia. The ostensible purpose of this company is to launch constellation of SAR satellites for earth observation.
MapmyIndia, that works with data, apparently will be in the background.
If S band SAR is dropped from the NISAR Mission, NASA will not be under obligation to give free data. Instead they will price L band SAR data. In this scenario one cannot rule out the possibility of MapmyIndia becoming their seller of data and analytic product. This will be a natural outcome as MapmyIndia is a formidable power as their forte is satellite data and data analytics products and software.
Conflict of Interest
In this scenario, association of Rakesh Bhan with MapmyIndia, though indirectly via his wife, raises some uncomfortable questions as he is in a position to play a major role when it comes to retaining or dropping the S band SAR payload. Certainly, it is a case of conflict of interest.
Distinguished Space scientist and former Director Space Application Centre Tapan Misra has taken stock of the global scenario during the period when every country was facing the COVID pandemic and has highlighted the fact thatthe performance of Indian Space Research organisation (ISRO) or India nose dived in 2020 and 2021 though India had comparatively enviable record when it came to managing the Covid situation.
In a post on facebook, Misra has asked: How did Covid-19 pandemic affect global Space Programme? He has responded to this question objectively and with a no-nonsense approach.
Commenting on the situation that has kept the entire world hostage for pretty long, Misra says, “the spectre of sudden emergence of Covid-19 in Wuhan province of China in December 2019 was being discussed as a possibility of rising as global pandemic, in hushed tones, in global health and political circles. But by March 2020, all over the world the emergence of the Pandemic of a century was felt, sending chilling reminders to humanity that we should not play God. From March 2020 to October 2021, global economics nose dived, killing millions, affecting billions, spreading shock waves of hunger and unemployment all across the globe states: “I thought it may be worthwhile to compare global launches in Covid cursed years of 2020 and 2021 with unaffected year of 2019.”
Misra focuses attention at countrywide trends in launches (Fig.2) to point out that China and USA are neck to neck, with China having slender advantage. Russia as usual is just a notch behind the two space super powers.
Fig.-1 shows month wise global launches in 2019, 2020 and 2021. The global space Industry not only appeared to be unaffected by the devastating pandemic, but in fact showed upward trend. No trend is visible over annual patterns over three years. In fact data from all three years show the typical upward trend as the year end is reached, showing the typical tendency of space agencies to shift to top gears to meet the annual target and this is in sharp contrast to what India has to flaunt in terms of India’s performance in the same sector.
Misra points out, Indian economy had started bouncing back from 3rd quarter of 2021 and the bounce has picked up consistency in second half of 2021.
Then what ails ISRO?
Based on his long experience in ISRO, the distinguished scientist has pointed out that the effect of management performance is observed in actual output of space Industry with approximately one and half years to two years of delay. There were gross unethical misconduct in ISRO in 2017 and 2018 time frame to settle and consolidate management transition in favour of a certain groupings, rather than merit and competence, he has stated adding the the resultant shenanigans have not only sent wrong vibes to the rank and file, but also ate away trust quotient between top management and general employees.
In Fig.-3, ISRO’s launch performance over last 4 decades can be observed.
According to Misra, ISRO started gaining momentum in the last decade. But off late, the momentum started nose diving. The momentum was taken for granted and somehow the arrogance has crept in that ISRO will perform regardless of the quality of leadership. Why not pitch for a leadership which can be milked by an influential section of retired scientists, who at the first place influence the selection process disproportionately in the first place? Then foreign players join the greedy bandwagon to hammer the last nail on the coffin. The result is a daydream turned into nightmare. The numbers speak of the harsh reality of what not to do with the organisation. A lesson learnt in devastation of a fine organisation, built by the efforts of thousands of employees, whose voice are seldom heard.
Dateline July 2012. Just a couple of months back we launched RISAT satellite. I was visiting US State Department in Washington DC as part of Indo US dialogue on space. During the “samosa break”, I mean snack break offering Samosa to participants, Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, took me aside and asked me in hushed tone – “Tapan, did you really build the RISAT SAR at such a ridiculous cost? The number I hear, is it right?”. I said -“Yes. What you heard is correct”. Bolden expressed his desire to visit the lab where SAR payload could be built at such a low cost. He visited the lab in Ahmedabad after one year. For the first time ever NASA Administrator visited any ISRO lab. That visit led to confirmation of joint NASA ISRO SAR programme – NISAR.
Radar imaging arrived in India after three decades of the launch of optical imaging in ISRO. Somehow we felt that the technology is beyond our reach and the perceived cost was beyond our budget. The delay was an outcome of collective self-diffidence, somehow ingrained in our psyche. It was a boon in disguise. There was not much interference in innovation and risk taking by careerist scientists in RISAT programme as odds against success was very high.
RISAT was a watershed moment of building a state of the art SAR,l – yes, no exaggeration, made in India, 98% components built in India. At a 10% cost of similar systems, quoted internationally. Probably the most complex electronics, ever built in India, with 1400 subsystems, 314 onboard computers, 5000 connectors, around 20 km long wiring and above all – Made in India. This payload not only broke new grounds, it set new standards and concepts that became de facto standards for rest of the SAR systems built afterwards, globally. We also added scores of patents and copyrights on the way.
The SAR system called for repetitive production of many subsystems with stringent qualification and calibration rigour, beyond the capacity of ISRO. We nurtured many greenhorns to take up the challenges as established ones shied away. I will take two examples.
Government of India established MMIC facility GAETECH in Hyderabad, which had no takers as somehow the news spread – see, it does not meet international standards. We adopted the fab, built all the MMICs, 7000 in number, three very different fab processes. And none failed in space in entire life-time of RISAT.
We built our patented Near Field antenna test facility to test the RISAT Active Antenna over its complete bandwidth – built for the first time ever. All commercially available antenna test facilities, available globally in that time frame, were only capable of measuring the pattern in single frequency. The test facility was in loop with payload, meaning the payload was testing and calibrating itself.
We encouraged one nascent CNC manufacturer, oddly titled Bombay Machine but situated in Bangalore, to build the Near Field scanner. He quoted a throwaway price, one fifth of global quote. It was the first major job by Girish Hosmani, the owner, who just had taken VRS from CMTI to establish his factory in a ramshackle shed in Peenya, more akin to a Bombay slum get up. He executed his job marvelously, though he had to mortgage his own house to execute this order. I am indebted to him.
Similar situation came when we developed High Throughput Satellite GSAT 11 payload. When I took over SAC, the payload was moving at snail’s pace for years. Ostensibly we had what was less than confidence in building the complex HTS payload. Also there were inclinations to import as safer option, though the quote was astronomical. I gave it a pace and we built it even before we received final quote of imported one. I recollect, once a file came across to me for approval of ferrite switch matrix for this payload. Seeing the cost of a couple of tens of crore, I quizzed. Looked like everybody else in the world uses this switch. I suggested PIN diode switch matrix, preceded and followed by suitable amplifiers. And the cost was next to nothing in comparison to that of the original choice. GSAT 11 was finally launched, with a lot of drama. I have no regret in standing up to push Made in India. I lost my position but not my reputation and respectability.
Way back in 1998. We were developing microwave radiometer for Oceansat – 1. For testing this payload, a group of specialists were chasing a purchase order for importing black body targets from UK Met office, at exorbitant price, along with training proposal. Actually nobody in India was ready to build such sophisticated cryogenic black body. Dr. George Joseph, then Director scrapped the file and asked me to build it. I was crestfallen as I had no idea of head and tail of such a system. Finally we built it by buying copper plates and copper tubings from Dilli Darwaja, strip heaters from Mumbai and controllers from Bangalore. Dr. Kanhialal, who resigned from NPL to build a microwave company in Ghaziabad innovated a process of coating graphite mixed Araldide on machined copper pyramids to make the absorber. He was in a hands to mouth situation. He once entertained me by making chapatis and sabji (vegetable preparation) in his house. I learnt how to bend copper tube without cracking, how to implement second order control on a high inertia thermal system. And the project was a resounding success. Our payload was the only radiometer whose calibration parameters was not required to be updated after launch. And cost differential? Don’t ask.
When we embarked on millimetre wave payload, there was a requirement of machining with 10 micron accuracy, almost one order better than our facility could offer. When we got the quote for imported machine, not only we were supposed to pay through the nose, but also we were required to house it in a temperature controlled, vibration isolated lab. I called my friends in mechanical engineering. I understood that for building CNC machine, you need three separate expertise in mechanical, electrical and software engineering and they do not talk to each other and errors due to individual fields remain uncorrected, building up inaccuracy. I put three boys to build a machine where all the mechanical and electrical drive non-linearities were calibrated and mapped back in software. We got a 6 micron accuracy machine, still operational, at very low cost, housed in normal shop floor and without requiring very big paraphernalia.
I can go on and on, from my experiences, to illustrate my conviction that given a chance and encouragement, Indians are capable of doing wonders. Why do I need to narrate these stories? In Atmanirbhar Programme GOI has mandated that for all tenders up to Rs. 200 Cr, only Indian parties manufacturing their products in India will be considered. A great move to force Government servants to source from India majority of the requirement. This single policy initiative, in consonance with other fiscal, industrial, labour and agriculture initiatives, has a potential for ushering in deluge of innovations, ambitious start ups and flourishing MSME sector.
Somehow this important aspect has not got focus. I am sure, Made in India product will be equivalent to almost five times costly Made in Foreign product. Specially in capital goods, heavy machinery, robots, semiconductor fabs, medical equipment and many other sophisticated products. Indirectly, the same tax payer’s money will be able bring more services to populace.
I am sure, clever scientists, babus, engineers, doctors will discover many arguments and loopholes to introduce many discretions in the indent procedure. They may even see to it that indigenous products are made a failure. Normal strategies for derailing Indian products and services are many, like introducing contradictory specifications, changing goal posts on the way or making specification 10 times stringent for best of similar products world wide. Then it will be proven that no Indian can produce good products and hence we should import. I call it “Failure is Success” strategy, perfected by many of our fertile minds. Even the responsible persons, pushing for Made in India product will be relegated to back benches, to hang them as scare crow to frighten other people daring to push indigenous approach. I would look for protection and encouragement from leadership and management, pursuing for Made in India product. India’s Atmanirbhar Programme can be a game changer for our economy and also for employment generation, provided bottlenecks are taken care of expeditiously. Without shackles, Indians can do wonder, given the slightest of opportunity.
The author, Tapan Misra, is a distinguished scientist. He is an advisor in the Department of Space, Government of India
An official ISRO communiqué, based on a press meet addressed by the chairman of the organisation K Sivan and released by ISRO on Wednesday 1 January, sums up the achievements of India’s Apex Space research organisation during the year 2019 without a word about the Chandrayaan-2 Mission that was supposed to be 98 per cent successful as claimed by the ISRO chief and widely publicised by the media immediately after all contact had been lost with Lander Vikram moments before its scheduled touchdown on the lunar surface on 7 September 2019.
Sivan had lost no time in telling the world that the Lander had been located and efforts were on to re-establish contact with it. ISRO also had announced in black and white that “Vikram lander has been located by the orbiter of Chandrayaan-2, but no communication with it yet. All possible efforts are being made to establish communication with lander”.
When NASA released pictures in the first week of December to indicate that the Lander had crashed and broken up into pieces, Sivan again went on record stating that there was nothing new in what NASA had projected since ISRO had located the Lander much earlier. Till now neither Sivan nor his organisation has laid bare before the people of India any proof to establish the basis for this announcement. ISRO also has failed to show any video of the Lander’s separation from the Orbiter.
A fact that should not be lost track of in this connection is that even the Department of Space press statement projecting the achievements of ISRO during the year 2019 is silent about the Lander and talks only about GSLV-MKIII M1 and the Orbiter.
Matters have reached such a pass that people have started asking if Vikram Lander had even been launched. The best ISRO can do to dispel such doubts, even if they are unnecessary and uncalled for, is that it can release pictures or videos of the Lander’s separation from the Orbiter and also give proof of what formed the basis of the claim by ISRO that the Lander had been located. Any “strategy” on the part of ISRO to hold back evidence would cause irreparable damage to the image and reputation of ISRO’s leadership. The going forward approach is remarkable but it would be an ideal situation only if one doesn’t get the impression that efforts are on to cover up the tracks. The ghost of Devas-Antrix scam and the issue of compensation linked with it already continues to haunt ISRO and also those in knowledgeable circles.
ISRO reported earlier that the Vikram Lander followed the planned descent trajectory from its orbit of 35 km to just below 2 km above the surface. All the systems and sensors of the Lander functioned excellently until this point and proved many new technologies such as variable thrust propulsion technology used in the Lander. The success criteria was defined for each and every phase of the mission till 7 September, and it was claimed that 98% of the mission objectives had been accomplished and would continue to contribute to Lunar science , notwithstanding the loss of communication with the Lander.
Taking at its face value Sivan’s claim in terms of percentage of success vis-a-vis Chandrayaan-2 (At IIT Bhubaneshwar convocation, ISRO chief said that Chandrayaan 2 mission has achieved 98% success), question arises, why ISRO has now chosen to go silent about its achievement when it comes to the variable thrust propulsion technology and the systems and sensors associated with the Lander and also the success linked with its separation from the Orbiter. ISRO’s silence is most intriguing and cannot be ignored. The ISRO leadership will have to be held accountable in this matter.
A Press Meet was organised on January 01, 2020, at ISRO Headquarters, Bengaluru on the New Year’s Day. Addressing media persons, Sivan outlined ISRO’s achievements during the last one year and also the plans to be accomplished during the current year.
According to the ISRO chief, Chandrayaan-3 mission to the moon, comprising a lander and a rover has been approved by the Government and activities for its realisation are in progress.
Sivan said that Chandrayaan-3 mission will have a lander and a rover, but not an orbiter. This gives rise to the question whether Chandrayaan-3 will have the same lander that was not sent along with Chandrayaan-2 orbiter when it was decided to send both the orbiter and the lander with the Chandrayaan-2 Mission. In that case, it would not be a major leap forward when it comes to building and launching Chandrayaan-3 in 9 months and at the projected low cost.
Talking about India’s first human space flight mission Gaganyaan, Sivan said “We’ve made good progress in the mission. The process of Astronaut selection for the mission is completed”. He further added that four astronauts have been selected, who will undergo extensive training.
Achievements of 2019
During 2019, six launch vehicle and seven satellite missions were realiSed by ISRO. The year also marked the 50th launch of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Sivan said that two new variants of the PSLV were introduced. For the first time, the spent fourth stage of the PSLV was successfully demonstrated as an experimental orbital platform. Indigenously developed Vikram processor by Semi-Conductor Laboratory was flight tested during the year. International mobile standards body 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) approved India’s regional navigation satellite system NavIC which would facilitate NavIC’s use in mobile phones.
On the capacity building front, a second launch port, exclusively for the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), is planned to be established in Thoothukudi district, Tamil Nadu. “Land acquisition activities are presently in progress”, said Sivan. A second Vehicle Assembly Building in SDSC SHAR Sriharikota was dedicated to the nation during the year for increasing the launch frequency. As part of the enhanced outreach activity, a launch viewing gallery was operationalised in Sriharikota to facilitate viewing of launches live by the public.
In an effort towards horizontal expansion of ISRO, Space Technology Cells, Space Technology Incubation Centres and Regional Academic Centres for Space were established during the year and many more such centres are planned in the future. A special programme for school children called “Yuva VIgyani KAryakram (YUVIKA)” aimed at imparting basic knowledge on Space Technology, Space Science and Space Applications was also introduced during the last year.
To carry forward the industry production of space systems, ISRO incorporated New Space India Limited (NSIL), under the Department of Space and efforts in realising PSLVs from industry initiated.
Other projects during the year include SSLV, GSLV with 4m ogive payload fairing, GSAT-20 satellite, NavIC with indigenous atomic clocks, Indian Data Relay Satellite System, Aditya-L1 and XPOSAT.
Postscript: ISRO is talking of Chandrayaan-3 and Gaganyaan but with regard to remote sensing, there is no word about operationalisation of RISAT 2B series radar imaging satellites. There is no word about the fate of performance of much touted Cartosat 3A satellite. Who will talk about the performance audit of ISRO’s payloads and satellites is needed by an independent agency?
Between 2009 and 2019 India has spent over Rs. 4000 crore on a series of navigation satellites (NavIC). One failed and a replacement had a launch failure. These satellites have a short life span. The much touted desi GPS has nothing on the ground – neither in terms of civil or military applications and use. The crux of the problem is that ISRO went full steam ahead and started launching the satellites in the Indian navigation system in quick succession, without bothering to ensure the chip sets required for ground support were also developed simultaneously to roll out the services that could be availed on mobile handsets just like the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS) and Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) are fully operational GNSSs, with China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) and the European Union’s Galileo.
Planetary missions like aditya L1 are also delayed. Such delays are leading to waste of resources and wrong priorities.