ISRO Ends Year With Successful Launch of RISAT-2BR1 Satellite

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Sriharikota: India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle-QL (PSLV-QL) rocket carrying the country's advanced radar imaging earth observation satellite RISAT-2BR1 and nine foreign satellites lifts off from the first launch pad of the rocket port in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh on Dec 11, 2019. (Photo: IANS/ISRO)

STRATEGIC EYE – A column on current affairs – relating to global issues

High-Res Cameras Have Multiple Uses; Indian Space Program Also Marks 50th Flight Of PSLV Rocket

By Ajey Lele@

India’s Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has ended the year 2019 with a successful launch of the RISAT-2BR1 satellite. During this PSLV-C 48 mission nine foreign satellites were also launched under a commercial arrangement with New Space India Limited (NSIL).

Six of these nine satellites belong to USA and one each to Israel, Italy and Japan. Israel’s remote sensing Duchifat-3 satellite was built by their student community, while Japan’s QPS-SAR is a radar imaging earth observation satellite, and Italy’s Tyvak-0092 is for search and rescue purposes.

There are four multi-mission Lemur satellites from Spire, and the other US satellites include a technology demonstration satellite called Tyvak-0129 and an earth imaging satellite called 1HOPSAT.

This was the 50th flight of the rocket PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle). This rocket has played a pivotal role in India’s space program over the years. Although this rocket has been chiefly designed for putting less than two tons of payload into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), ISRO has been very innovative with it and has even used this vehicle to successfully launch India’s first moon mission (2008) and Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM 2013).

ISRO has provided some interesting statistics with regards to this launcher, which has been used for all of ISRO’s commercial launches so far. To date, this versatile launcher has lifted off 52.7 tonnes into space, of which 17% belongs to customer satellites. The RISAT-2BR1 satellite launched by ISRO on 11 December 2019 is the fourth radar satellite launched by ISRO so far. Such radar satellites could be categorised as dual-purpose satellites, being essentially remote sensing satellites with major surveillance utility.

For many years ISRO’s focus was towards the development of optical sensors for their various remote sensing (earth observation) satellites. However, these sensors have limitations and are less effective during bad weather, and for collecting information with typical terrain and topographic features.

India’s geographical boundaries with the neighbouring states have features like seas, deserts, snowclad peaks and thickly vegetated mountain ranges. Obviously, getting correct information from these areas, especially during night-time, was a challenge. Hence, ISRO started developing SAR (synthetic aperture radar) technology.     

The impetus to acquire radar satellites began in November 2008, when India experienced one of the most major terror attacks in its history. India’s financial capital Mumbai witnessed 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting for four days and killing more than 160 people. Because of security challenges, an immediate need for reconnaissance satellites was felt, and India imported the SAR sensor from Israel.

With this the first radar satellite was launched during 2009. The table below provides the details about India’s radar satellite inventory. All these satellites are very high-resolution satellites and have a design life of five years. There was some controversy with respect to RISAT-1, when there emerged some reports that around September 2016, possibly owing to debris, this satellite had gone dead.

However, ISRO never confirmed these reports and declared that the satellite had become dysfunctional. With the recent launch, now India has two operational satellites RISAT-2B and RISAT-2BR1.

However, a lot of gaps in intelligence gathering still exist owing to the revisit rate, hence, there is a need for India to undertake other two proposed launches at the earliest.   

  ISRO’s satellite launches during last one-year period demonstrates ISRO’s potential towards strengthening India’s strategic capabilities. In addition, they have also undertaken many small satellites launches for various global customers. All this essentially indicates the maturing of ISRO into an agency which can successfully conduct conventional space missions, deep space missions, strategic missions and commercial missions.    

@Ajey Lele, Group Captain (Retd.), Senior Fellow in the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and heads its Centre on Strategic Technologies