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India's space agency sets its sights on the sun

Vasudevan Sridharan Interview
April 20, 2018

The recently appointed chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Kailasavadivoo Sivan, spoke to DW about the agency's humanitarian purpose, and its upcoming mission to send a probe to the sun.

Raketenstart in Indien
Image: picture alliance/Indian Space Research Organisati/ISRO

Since its inception in the late 1960s, India's space agency, ISRO, has attained a special status in Indian society and has grown in popularity as a symbol of the country's technological ambition. In January 2018, Kailasavadivoo Sivan, who is also known as "rocket man" took over leadership of the ISRO.

Sivan comes from a modest background — being the son of a farmer and the first person in his family to obtain a degree. He has now taken on an enormous responsibility as ISRO has completed ambitious missions in recent years and is aiming for greater heights. 

In 2008, the agency sent an unmanned spacecraft, Chandrayaan-1, to orbit the moon. In 2013, India launched its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), a satellite which has been orbiting Mars since September 2014

ISRO says that its satellite launches came at affordable costs, and is marketing itself as an attractive destination for global aerospace investment. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi once said in a speech that its Mars mission was cheaper than the production costs of the Hollywood space-thriller Gravity.

The next major projects for ISRO are a second mission to the moon planned for 2018 and a solar mission — the first from India to study the properties of the sun. With the help of this mission, code-named Aditya-L1, ISRO is hoping to make a major scientific contribution to the study and observation of the sun's properties.

Kailasavadivoo Sivan
Sivan: 'India's space agency is not just about rockets and satellites'Image: ISRO

ISRO's chairman Sivan spoke to DW about the solar mission, India's goals for aerospace and the direction in which he plans to lead India's space agency.

DW: How does it feel to be leading India's space agency after coming from a humble background?

Kailasavadivoo Sivan: I came from a family of farmers. In the village I grew up, we didn't know about the study of space technology. So, whatever little information we had turned our focus fully on.

Academic excellence and hard work allowed me to acquire more knowledge that took me places. I believe in working hard toward goals and I have the same attitude from my school days that I will always try and deliver the best work possible.

After taking charge of ISRO, I visited my home village. Many people had never heard of the space agency.

My villagers were elated to see one of their own reaching a top position. I also explained ISRO's activities to them and how it is closely involved in numerous projects beyond space exploration.

Indien Mars Orbiter Mission Mangalyaan
One of the first images of the Martian surface taken by India's Mars satellite in September 2014Image: ISRO

Give us an insight into ISRO's current projects, and how does the agency work toward successfully completing missions?

India's space agency is not just about rockets and satellites. The ultimate mission is to serve people. For example, Tropical Cyclone Ockhi in 2017 claimed more than 200 lives and devastated many parts in southern India. In response, ISRO developed a new mobile application using our navigation satellites. The navigation program also helps fishermen better equip themselves during catastrophes and supports their livelihood.

My current goal is deeper penetration with space-based applications and making such services freely available to the public so that education and industry can benefit. We're even ready to provide receivers free of cost so that businesses can use them to develop mobile applications to suit their needs. 

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We always have a three-year-plan, a seven-year strategy and a 15-year vision that provides structure for planning. This is a continuing process.

One area I want to focus on is so-called high-throughput satellites (HTS), which provide an enhanced data-rate transmission.

They will increase the speed of data transfer from satellite to ground. At the moment, such high-speed data transfer is available only in cities. We want to establish such connectivity in remote places in India as well. This would potentially boost the data transfer facilities in remote parts of the country. 

The agriculture sector is also in focus and there are plans right now in the pipeline. We currently offer limited support to farmers by providing information on certain crops and we want to expand this service. From the current number of eight crops, we want to increase it to 25 crops so that farmers can have more information on crop yields and soil fertility, among other things.

Of course, at the same time, we are focusing on our core competency of space missions.

Bildergalerie Indien Mars Orbiter Mangalyaan
Indian PM Modi addresses ISRO staff after India's MOM probe successfully entered orbit around MarsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Jagadeesh NV

Speaking of space missions, what are the major projects coming up at ISRO?

Besides the nine missions planned for 2018, which include a mission to the Moon called Chandrayaan-2, we have the Aditya-L1 mission. This is a solar project to observe and carry out scientific discoveries of the sun.

The mission is already in the middle leg of preparation, and we are slightly tweaking the project because some solar activity appears different from our earlier predictions.

Studying solar activity will have a major impact on Earth and the system that we are planning to put in place will prove noteworthy. The mission will be launched in 2019.

What is ISRO's position in the global space industry and what challenges does it face?

We compare each agency's activities against internal objectives and not against other agencies. Our space agency was established with the motto of serving downtrodden people using space-based services.

With respect to that objective, I think ISRO has achieved much and it is living up to its expectations. Generally, ISRO's use of satellites for domestic applications in sectors like education and medicine are appreciated by other countries. 

And our space missions at reduced cost have also won accolades from others.

The main global challenge that we face is with respect to international cooperation. All these space missions essentially demand better cooperation with other countries and we'd like to think we're part of a global system. We're even ready to share weather-monitoring satellites or remote-sensing satellites with other countries to demonstrate that we're part of the system. 

If we have more international cooperation and more technology that can be shared and improved, we will have more missions that can be carried out in a cost-effective manner and with reduced duration. ISRO is already involved in such measures and it is moving in the right direction. 

Kailasavadivoo Sivan is the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

This interview was conducted by Vasudevan Sridharan.

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