Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Akashwani news and Indian satellites

On a fine day in 1975, we were informed with big fanfare on Akashwani that India had become only the 5th or 6th nation to have its artificial satellite. This satellite, launched from Soviet Union, was called Aryabhatta. It was a big news, and Indians rejoiced just as much as they had done the last year.

These two news items ( 1974 Pokharan and this 1975 Aryabhatta satellite) meant that I, who was interesting in Bollywood music and sports, became interested in Indian achievement in various fields in general and in scientific achievements in particular.

In 1979, India had another satellite called Bhaskara launched from Soviet Union.

Same year, Indians grew more ambitious and decided to launch satellites from home in what was called SLV (satellite launch vehicle), but the first such attempt of SLV launching a satellite called Rohini failed. Later in 1980,SLV successfully launched another satellite called Rohini-I and Akashwani again informed us something like India becoming only the fifth or so country in the world to have this capability. And I was suitably proud of this achievement. then an experiment communication satellite called APPLE was successfully launched in 1981( which led to spoof in humour magazine "Madhu Muskaan" showing Popat- Chaupat, the main cartoon characters of the magazine going to space in BANANA satellite). It was launched from Kourou, French Guyana on Ariane rocket.In the same year, Bhaskar-II was launched successfully.

In each case, the Akashwani news would cover the launch of the satellite, then the hourly health of the satellite for a few days- now the satellite has been launched, now the satellite has established contact with the master control facility as Hassan, now the satellite has been put into an intermediate orbit etc. In the coming days, the satellite would be gradually brought up to its final orbit and interested audience like me would await the outcome with bated breath.

The purpose for the satellites was also mentioned in detail in news bulletins, as was the expected duration for which it was supposed to stay in space. In fact, how much fuel it contained and its booster motors were also discussed in the news items. As it was, the satellites were supposed to usher in the dawn of a new era in telecommunications in India.

satellites had begun to be used for telecommunications in those days. Countries like USA, Soviet Union and European Union were the pioneers in the field. Other countries would lease transponders on their satellites or get their own satellites launched from their launching facilities.

India had leased some transponders on INTELSAT satellite, a satellite owned by US, and India got these on lease so that they could telecast educational programmes for their rural folks. And that was used by Indian TV Doordarshan to telecast its programmes to some selected parts of India- and in true Govt of India fashion, the programmes were dull and boring.

India decided that they needed to have their own telecommunication satellites.
And the first telecommunication satellite in this connection was called INSAT-1A. (Brief for India satellite-1A, 1A showing that it was the first satellite in the series of satellites planned, subsequent satellites were to be called INSAT-1B, INSAT-1C etc).This was to be launched by NASA at Cape Canvarel aboard Delta rocket in 1982.

Everyone, at least people like me,eagerly looked forward to the launch of INSAT-1A, which was supposed to serve Indian telecommunication needs for 5 years, and would herald telecommunication facilities that were stuff of science fiction for Indians. We were informed that the Indians would be able to watch TV all over the country, like they were able to listen to All India radio. Even the radio coverage was likely to improve. Moreover, telephone facilities were supposed to become much better than even before.

The launch was successful, and how the satellite had established contact with the master control facility as Hassan etc were given good coverage by Akashwani.Then the process of manoevering it to its final orbit via intermediate orbits began.But the enthusiasm soon gave way to despair and later it was informed that the satellite had used up too much energy in the process of reaching its geostationary orbit. It lasted only three months against a projected life of five years. I was very disappointed.

Next satellite in the series INSAT-1B was launched from Cape Canavaral and this time it was launched in 1983 by a space shuttle Challenger. It was successfully and it ushered in the promised telecommunication revolution in India.

If we recall, the era of TV and improved telecom facilities began thereafter.

Next satellite was INSAT-1C launched from Kourou aboard Ariane in 1988 to replace INSAT-1B which was completing its life soon. But this launch, though described as a success initially, soon ran into trouble. The satellite failed to operate to its full capacity as one of its solar panel failed to open ( if I recall correctly). After struggling for about one year, this satellite finally was abandoned as failed. Indian agencies, which had pinned their hopes on this satellite had to hire facilities on foreign satellites as a temporary measure, hoping that the next launch would be successful.

Next satelite, INSAT-ID ( last in the INSAT I series), launched from Cape Canavaral aboard Delta rocket was successful. It was the first time that an Indian satellite aboard a rocket was successfully launched. Also, quite coincidentally, the two successful Indian satellites were both launched by NASA,USA. This communication satellite finally took into to the new era of telecommunication age, from which India has not looked back since.

After that, so many INSAT series satellites have been launched, and majority of them ( 12 out of 14) have been successful. I have lost track of these launches and these satellites. Their successful launch has become a non event, no one even thinks about them any longer. In fact, the last such satellite, INSAT-4CR was launched from Shri Harikota, India itself aboard GSLV, and it was successful.(Their earlier launch, that of INSAT-4C, was a failure). These days it does not attract much attention. Even I, who was so clued in on such news during my younger days, did not pay too much attention to this event, when it took place on september 2007.I was more busy thinking about Indian cricket team's chances in the inaugural Twenty20 world cup.

The fact that Indian PSLV launchers had been launching smaller satellites for many countries such as Italy,Israel, Indonesia, Argentina,Canada etc has failed to make news. In January 2008,PSLV launched 4 satellites simultaneously. Later PSLV launch in April 2008 saw as many as 10 satellites launched simultaneously ( 8 of them for foreign countries), and no one even took notice. The world record is 13 satellites in one launch by Russia the same year, but theRussian satellites only weighed 295 kg in all, against total weight of over 1000 Kg aboard PSLV).

One has to admit that the Indian satellite efforts had come a long way from those days in 1970s and 1980s if such news items no longer get any coverage in the Indian media.


Raja Swaminathan said...

Wow...very interesting and quite an eye-opener, Atul.

Although I too lived through that period, I was not that much into the details of the launches. I did know about Aryabhata, Bhaskara, INSAT-1A, INSAT-1B etc but my knowledge was very disjointed.

You have explained it in a very coherent manner here, with a background and tracing India's evolution in this field very well.

Like you say, the fact that this is hardly in the news nowadays is a measure of the success and maturity of the Indian space programme.

At the same time, it would be nice if this does get more coverage as it will have more people interested in knowing what is going on in our country other than just politics, business, films and sport. It may also make people more proud of the achievements of our scientists.

Your style is very lucid and therefore easy-to-read. No bombastic words and sentences.
Keep writing ! As you know, you have one regular (practically everyday) reader for sure. :-)

squarecut.atul said...

you are right in saying that people should take more interest in such matters, but as we all know, people are more interested in comparatively trivial matters.

Writing about serious matters does not get you too many readers. I feel like music director Madan Mohan whose nice tunes had few takers in his life time.

But like our favourite music director Madan Mohan, we cannot compromise with our principles. As long as you are my only regular reader, I will continue to post on topics that I think we should know more about.

OnlyMe said...

This column rocks! You may be interested in actually hearing the songs played on Vivid Bharati and Radio Ceylon from the days when radio really meant something. Just go here and click on the appropriate links:

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