Latest technology developments in India
Several developments relating to technology in India took place in January; these would make any Indian proud. Read on to know more.
Although newspapers have been extensively covering protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act over the past several weeks, a series of feel-good developments in science and technology have rocked the country in January 2020. The year got off to a quiet, non-controversial start in science. The Indian Science Congress kicked off on January 3, 2020, at Bengaluru, and, unlike in the past five years, no absurd allegations were made about how vimanas crisscrossed the airspace during the days of Ramayana, how vaids (doctors) practised stem cell therapy or performed plastic surgery many hundreds of years ago in ancient India, or how we knew then of the composition of the atom. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who inaugurated the Indian Science Congress on that day, appealed to students to “innovate, patent, produce, and prosper”. PM Modi praised India for being in the “third position globally in the number of peer-reviewed science and engineering publications”, and claimed that the number of these publications in India “is also growing at the rate of10 per cent, as compared to the global average of four per cent”.
However, reputed scientist Dr C.N.R. Rao did not hesitate to contradict the Prime Minister. Eighty-six year old Dr Rao, who was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 2013, told the Congress on January 4, “I am not worried about the quantity but quality is important. However, in India, we are doing well in neither the quantity nor the quality of science in what we should be doing.” Publication trends show that India’s share in the world research output was around five per cent. But the rate of citations was just around two to three per cent. (The Hindu, January 5, 2020).
Despite Dr Rao’s remarks on the quality and quantity of the country’s publications in science, several developments relating to technology that took place in January would make any Indian proud. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) unveiled “a young woman humanoid” named Vyom Mitra, who will journey into space in a module in December 2020 in the first trial flight of India’s Human Space Flight (HSF) mission; she will ride into space again in July 2021. These two flights will be a precursor to India sending its own three or four astronauts into space in a crew module in 2022, which will mark India’s 75th year of Independence; four Indian astronauts have started training from February 10th in the Gagarin Research and Test Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC) in Moscow, Russia. All the four are men – they are test pilots from the Indian Air Force (IAF).
Other technological achievements in January included two successful flight trials of the K-4 missile, with a range of 3,500 km, and developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), from a submerged pontoon off the Visakhapatnam coast; the landing and takeoff by the Naval version of DRDO’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Tejas, from the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya; ISRO’s most sophisticated communication satellite called GSAT-30 being put into orbit by the Ariane-V rocket from the Kourou island, French Guiana; and India’s biggest, indigenous 700 MWe nuclear power reactor getting ready at Kakrapara in Gujarat to be started up in April this year. On January 26, during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India proudly showcased its anti-satellite missile prowess by displaying its A-SAT missile called Mission Shakti. On March 27, 2019, the DDRO-developed A-SAT missile took out a live satellite called Microsat-R, also belonging to DRDO and orbiting at an altitude of 300 km above the earth. It was a stupendous technological triumph because you have to spot the satellite and pulverise it with your missile when the satellite is travelling at a velocity of several thousands of km an hour. The missile took three minutes to reach the target. In those three minutes, Microsat-R would have travelled about 1,350 km. This fact alone gives a glimpse of the accuracy of the interception, the computations that went into it, and the real-time manoeuvres for the warhead to reach the target.
On January 2, another important event in technology development took place in Bengaluru. PM Modi inaugurated five DRDO facilities called “Young Scientists’ Laboratories”, which will be totally staffed by scientists below the age of 35 years. The Directors of these five technological establishments will also be aged below 35 years. Dr G. Satheesh Reddy, Chairman, DRDO, said on the occasion that the laboratories were established on a directive from Prime Minister Modi. Each lab will work on an advanced technology of importance for the development of futuristic weapon systems. The laboratories will do work in the fields of artificial intelligence, quantum technology, asymmetric technology, cognitive technology, and smart materials, said Dr Satheesh Reddy, who is also Secretary, Department of Defence R and D. The five facilities will be located in Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kharagpur, and Mumbai. They will be linked with academic institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) - Madras, IIT – Mumbai, and IIT – Kharagpur. The laboratories will have the same financial and administrative powers akin to the full-fledged DRDO facilities.
Coming back to the developments in ISRO, Vyommitra (meaning a friend of space), India’s “woman” humanoid-cum-astronaut, became a rage when she was unveiled to an international gathering in Bengaluru on January 22. She was seated at a desk and dressed in a uniform. She wore an ISRO identity card. Possessing only a torso, she introduced herself to visitors with, “I am Vyom Mitra.” She added: “I can do switchboard operations, ECLSS (Environment Control and Life Support Systems) functions, be a companion, converse with the astronauts, recognise them and also respond to their queries.” (The Hindu, January 23, 2020).
The ISRO Chairman said that Vyom Mitra would simulate the human functions required for humans journeying into space before the Indian astronauts would travel into space in a crew module in 2022. Dr Sam Dayala Dev, Director, ISRO Inertial Systems Unit, Thiruvananthapuram, said the Vyom Mitra humanoid was the result of the hard work done by the facility’s technologists for more than a year.
Out of these four Indian astronauts from the IAF who are currently training in GCTC in Moscow, two or three will travel into space in 2022 in a crew module which will be put into orbit by ISRO’s most powerful rocket called Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle – Mark III (GSLV-MkIII). PM Modi announced the mission and named it “Gaganyaan” during his Independence Day speech on August 15, 2018. It goes to the credit of the Bharatiya Janata Party Government-led by PM Modi, and the persuasive skill of Dr Sivan, that the Union Cabinet approved and sanctioned the Gaganyaan project at an estimated cost of more than Rs.10, 000 crores. After China’s first manned mission to space in 2003, there was a clamour that India should catch up; ISRO was also keen on sending an Indian astronaut into space. The UPA-Government led by Dr Manmohan Singh, which took power in 2004, cold-shouldered the project until 2014 when the Congress and its allies were voted out of office. All that the Manmohan Singh cabinet did was to sanction Rs.100 crores to do initial studies into India’s Human Space Flight Project. When Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister and Dr Manmohan Singh was the Union Finance Minister from 1991 to 1996, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) received a terrible short shrift. Money was not allotted to big-ticket nuclear power projects, or for the establishment of mills for processing natural uranium into yellowcake which will go into the fabrication of nuclear fuel bundles for powering the reactors. A top official of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), a public sector undertaking of the DAE, called the reign of Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo a “disaster” for the nuclear power programme in India.
It will be a modified Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle – Mark III (GSLV-Mk III) that will put the crew module with two or three Indian cosmonauts into a low-earth orbit at an altitude of about 400 km above the earth in 2022. After a thorough selection, four IAF fighter aircraft pilots have become ISRO candidates for its human spaceflight programme. These cosmonauts will stay in the orbit in their crew module for about three to seven days, performing a variety of experiments. They will return to earth in the module which will splash into the Bay of Bengal. The mission involves the development of advanced technologies such as building a human-rated rocket that would safely put the crew module with the astronauts into the low-earth orbit, an abort mechanism which would enable the astronauts to escape from the vehicle in case of any mishap during the flight, the development of the crew module itself with environmental and life support systems, the fabrication of space suits, and bringing the astronauts safely back to Earth.
On February 10, Glavkosmos, a Russian enterprise which markets Russian space technology to other countries, issued a press statement titled “Indian candidates for a human space flight start training in Russia”. It said the 12-month long training for the four Indian cosmonauts included “comprehensive and biomedical training…which will be combined with regular physical practices.” In addition, they would study in detail the system of the Soyuz manned spaceship and they would be trained in short-term weightlessness aboard the special Il-76MDK aircraft. “The Indian pilots will also be trained correctly in case of abnormal landing of the manned spaceship…in various climate and geographical zones. Most of the training will take place in GCTC facilities”, the press statement said. The contract between Glavkosmos and the Human Space Flight Centre of ISRO was signed on June 27, 2019. The document implied Glavkosmos’ support in the selection of candidates, their medical examinations, and various aspects of their space training.
Meanwhile, back in India, activities have got into top gear at the U.R. Rao Satellite Centre, Bengaluru, for the Chandrayaan-3 mission. It is at this centre that a lander and a rover will be built to land on the Moon. According to Dr Sivan, Chandrayaan-3 will be put into orbit in December 2020, or early 2021. It will carry with it the dreams and aspirations of the Indian people, because it will be a follow-up to the Chandrayaan-2 mission which tragically failed on September 7, 2019. The 2019 mission failed when the Vikram lander crash-landed on the South Pole of the moon’s surface instead of landing softly on it. Chandrayaan-3 will be different from Chandyaan-2 in one aspect. The former will not carry an orbiter, that is, a spacecraft with it, which Chandrayaan-2 did. Chandrayaan-3 will carry only a lander and a rover. The lander will land softly on the South Pole of the Moon. From the lander the rover will emerge, which will drive about on the Moon’s surface. Both the lander and the rover will perform experiments relating to the moon’s soil, its seismic activity, and so on.
The two successful flight trials of the K-4 missile from a pontoon submerged a few scores of metres in the Bay of Bengal is a big step towards strengthening India’s nuclear deterrence at sea. The K-4 missiles, equipped with nuclear warheads, can reach enemy targets located about 3,500 km away. They will be a huge hidden asset to the Navy because they will be fitted onboard India’s three nuclear-powered submarines which are in the pipeline. One of them - the second boat called Arighat - has already been launched. These three boats will carry pods of both K-4 missiles which will be armed with nuclear warheads and BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, which carry only conventional warheads.
K-4 is a successor to the K-15 missile. India’s first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine called Arihant is fitted with K-15 missiles which carry nuclear warheads. Since the K-15 has a limited range of only 750 km, DRDO developed K-4, which can take out targets about 3,500 km away. Several flight-trials of K-4 had already been done in the previous years, including the debut mission on March 24, 2014. The two successful flight trials of K-4 in January this year demonstrate that they are ready for induction on the indigenously built nuclear-powered boat Arighat, which is undergoing sea trials now.