ISRO to demonstrate docking of satellites next year, says Sivan

India’s space agency ISRO plans to demonstrate docking technology some time next year, the agency’s Chairman, Kailasavadivoo Sivan, told BusinessLine today. Docking refers to connecting of two flying objects in space, so that men and materials can be transferred from one to the other.

Two satellites will be sent to space on board a regular PSLV mission and the two would be made to dock with each other, Sivan said, describing the exercise as a technology demonstration experiment.

Mastering this extremely difficult technology is crucial for the operations of an Indian space station, a lab up in space — astronauts would need to be ferried from the earth to the space station and back. This can be achieved only if the vehicle that carries the astronauts can dock with the space station.

Asked when ISRO planned to build a space station, Sivan said that the project was still some distance away, and would be taken up only after the Gaganyaan mission, which is to take astronauts to space and bring them back to earth safely, through the rigours of re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. Gaganyaan is expected to happen in December 2021.

Chandrayaan-2 learnings
Sivan said that Chandrayaan-2 had yielded rich learnings. “The orbiter is working nicely,” he observed. Operations such as orbiter injection, earth-bound manoeuvres, trans-lunar injection, lunar orbit injection and orbit reduction have been done by ISRO earlier, but it got to do these once again. However, the newly-developed throttleable engines, sensors and algorithms that were developed for the lander were fresh learnings. “These functioned well quite up to a long time,” Sivan said, adding that the failure was only towards the very end of the landing. “We have learnt these technologies,” he said.

Asked when there might be a Chandrayaan-3, Sivan said that that had yet to be decided.

On the upcoming launch vehicles, he said that ISRO’s semi-cryogenic engine “is getting ready” and the first of the tests on the engine would be done in Ukraine. The semi-cryogenic engine, which will have the fuel kerosene at room temperature and the oxidiser liquid oxygen at cryogenic temperatures, will enable ISRO to lift up to 6 tonnes of mass to GeoSynchronous Orbit, 36,000 km above earth.

Is ISRO looking beyond chemical propulsion? Sivan said that the agency had successfully tried out electric propulsion on one of its satellites and was working on a bigger engine. “We have demonstrated electric propulsion in one satellite and further development is going on. We are working on a bigger electric propulsion thruster,” he said.

Asked if nuclear thermal propulsion was something that ISRO was working on, Sivan replied in the negative. Nuclear thermal rockets, which use nuclear fission (or fusion) to provide thrust to rockets, make way for much more powerful rockets than the chemical rockets that the world uses today. Sivan said that nuclear thermal was “still on paper” and would take some years to mature.

On the Space Activities Bill that was hammered out in 2017 to facilitate more private sector participation in space-related activities, Sivan observed that the proposed legislation had gone through a committee, which has given its recommendations. “It is in the process; we are waiting for the cabinet approval,” said Sivan, who in his capacity as the Chairman of ISRO, is also the Secretary of the Department of Space.

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