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Raising the bar

Raising the bar
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) continues its relentless march into the history books. On Wednesday morning, it launched 104 satellites in a single mission, a world record, from its base in Sriharikota. Reports state that the space agency's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle-C37 is carrying nanosatellites from seven countries, besides an indigenous Cartostat-2, which is an Earth observation instrument. This further establishes ISRO's burgeoning reputation as a major destination for cost launches. Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the congratulations, and very few would begrudge him of an opportunity to express his bullishness about the state of India's space programme. In late 2013, ISRO had managed to pull off a remarkable feat in launching a low-cost mission to orbit Mars that succeeded at the very first attempt, popularly known as the Mangalyaan mission. ISRO has consistently managed to raise the bar with one launch after another, most notably in 2016. Using the sturdy and ever-dependable Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV, the space agency pushed the seventh satellite of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System into orbit. The system was soon rechristened Navigation with Indian Constellation or NAVIC. With this, India became only the sixth country/union of nations to build and operate their own satellite navigation capabilities after the United States, European Union, Russia, China and Japan. Before the introduction of NAVIC, India was dependent on the US' Global Positioning System, popularly known as GPS. The country now possesses the potential for greater precision in its navigation capabilities, besides the independence to control its systems. The security implications are indeed great. Wednesday's record-breaking launch is also unique on a lot of levels.

Among the 104 satellites launched on Wednesday, 88 are from a San Francisco-based Earth imaging private company called Planet Labs Incorporated, while the rest are from the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Israel, the Netherlands and Kazakhstan. More pertinently for India, three of 104 satellites are indigenous. "The Cartosat 2D, the PSLV's main payload, is a high-resolution Earth-observation satellite, which will help in water resource mapping, road network monitoring and land-use mapping," says a report in Bloomberg, a business website. "The other two Indian representatives are nano-satellites." Wednesday's launch smashed the earlier record held by Russia's Dnepr mission, which launched 33 satellites in 2014, followed by NASA's 29. The technological prowess of India's space agency is already well known, and Wednesday's launch further strengthens that fact. Backed by a seemingly viable business model, whereby ISRO seeks to recover half the mission's cost from the price tag slapped on foreign launches, it has laid yet another marker in the small satellite launch market. In this market, the Indian space agency competes closely with the likes of Elon Musk's space transportation startup company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and venture capital-funded start-ups like Virgin Galactic Ltd's LauncherOne. As the suppliers of critical remote-sensing data and communications platform, ISRO plays an essential role in our nation's development and security. It provides data used to forecast the weather, conserve water and map crops, minerals, forest cover, among other critical resources. Its communications platform, meanwhile, delivers essential media and distance education, among other services for the Indian populace.
Why does ISRO stand ahead of the rest of the pack among government agencies? Unlike most, which suffer from excessive bureaucratic overreach, ISRO enjoys a significant degree of freedom in its operations and consistent funding from the government. The political class in India, once averse to spending money on our critical space programme, has over the years become a staunch supporter to the extent that few questions are asked about substantial increases in funding. Aided by scientists and engineers with exceptional technical capabilities, the agency has consistently produced results beyond expectations. Moreover, unlike other government science institutes, its operations are not shrouded in secrecy. In the 50 years of its existence, there has been only one major financial scandal. Of course, no successful entity in the scientific field is immune to the odd technological failure. Despite this fact, the space agency remains ahead of the pack among technical departments funded by the government, while making its mark on the international scene. May it long continue!
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