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BW Businessworld

India Will Soon Have Satellite Based Quantum Communications Systems -- ISRO Chairman K. Sivan

K Sivan, Chairman, ISRO & Secretary, Department of Science, says the space agency is ready to embrace a new chapter in space -- to build/ launch satellites & payloads in collaboration with Indian space startups. It aims to have clusters of small satellites for precision observation. In the wide ranging conversation with BW Businessworld’s Manish Kumar Jha, Sivan talks about the space draft policy, Chandrayaan 2 payloads (new findings), Gisat1, Mission Gaganyaan (unmanned), NavIC, SAR and collaboration with other leading space agencies like US space Agency NASA & Russia’s Roscosmos.

Photo Credit :


BW Businessworld with K. Sivan Chairman, ISRO HQ in  Bangalore

Manish K. Jha: Space exploration has acquired a new dimension along the commercial spectrum. India is also treading to unlock such potential. In this regard, Department of Space is drafting revised policy frameworks and regulations. What are the focus areas that will set forth the greater aerospace industrial ecosystem in India? 

K. Sivan: Basically, now that we are talking about unlocking India’s potential in the space sector, not only ISRO but a lot of industries as well as startups are capable of doing space activities. These activities involve launching satellites and providing services across certain sectors. And when it comes to these sectors there are some things that we should understand. 

Space activities include International Obligations for a space system. Also, the government is responsible for space activities happening in the country. So when International Obligations are there, when we allow people to do space activities, we need to have a policy framework.

So we are drafting 10 policies, for instance, Satcom policy, remote sensing policy, satellite launching policy, space exploration policy, EPDA policy. These policies will ensure that we have a good system for people to do the job without any hindrance.

Manish K. Jha: While ISRO has been involved with the world’s leading and complex projects in space, in terms of commercial value, India’s share of the $447 bn space economy is only ~ 2 %. How could we unlock the potential and utilize our advancement in the space to monetize and sustain the research program of the next generation? 

K. Sivan: This is mainly because the work was contained within the ISRO alone and the number of people involved in the act were very few. There is a need to understand space systems. By opening up the space sector to the industry, definitely the economy is going to benefit, our share is going to increase. So more number of people will come into the picture, more number of private players will be there and the economy will benefit. We are not constrained by lack of technology, however we have limited resources. We are not able to produce a large number of satellites. 

Another factor is, if we look at the space economy, the launch vehicle or satellite contributions are very less, whereas the ground systems as well as the applications are more. 

By opening up or unlocking this potential we will be able to capture the downstream activities also. And via the process we will be able to boost our economy.

Manish K. Jha: ISRO has gathered the latest data from Chandrayaan-2 orbiter payloads through scientific observations of the moon by remote sensing and in-situ techniques. What are the latest findings? 

K. Sivan: There are a lot of interesting observations by the Chandrayaan orbital mission. We had the Chandrayaan mission in two parts -- the science part and the landing part. For the landing part we couldn’t succeed because of failure in the system. The science part by the orbital is still on. This system has been going on for over seven years. We have gathered a huge amount of data and some of it is very interesting. 

Our Chandrayaan payload is able to capture nano-solar fliers. There are some strong observations on the water molecules, a lot of new things are coming.

Manish K. Jha: ISRO had a breakthrough technological moment by testing a free space quantum communication. How will it translate into greater distance and quantum  communications between satellite and ground stations? 

K. Sivan: Basically, quantum communications have a major application, a major use of secure communications. Now the communication system is very open even though it’s encrypted. And with advanced computers anybody can hack the system. 

So we want to secure communications and quantum communication technology is going to give a major input in that direction. 

In fact, we have already worked out the experiment in our space application center -- in that they were able to establish quantum communications between two buildings which are 300 metres away. Now another research is going on in the physical research laboratory that involves quantum which is much more secured. That is already re-established. Already in the Raman Research Institute we did a project, research is going on in ISRO centres as well as other labs.

All this we are going to put together and demonstrate satellite based quantum communications. Once that is done we will be establishing the satellite based communication through experimental mission and we will be able to do actual system by combining the terrestrial system with the space based satellite system. With that we will be able to have a quantum communication system that will be highly secured.

Manish K. Jha: So we are the pioneers in this area? 

K. Sivan: The technology is already with China, other countries are also working on it. We are not the pioneers but we are not lagging behind in this technology.

Manish K. Jha: GISAT-1 aims to capture real-time images. How does it add to defence capabilities? Can the satellite capture and track the underwater movement or hyperspectral imaging under a dense forest or mountain? 

K. Sivan: The strategic area is not a part of this, so that is defined and we are only providing the satellite. All other things they are handling. So it’s not a part of ISRO. That’s all.

Manish K. Jha: What is the latest update on NavIC (Navigation with Indian Constellation) which is the independent standalone navigation satellite system of India? Does NavIC have the required constellation of satellites and ground stations to achieve the scale and effectiveness in terms of position, navigation, and timing? 

K. Sivan: We have seven satellite constellations for NavIC and this gives very accurate results. The clocks were imported and some failures were there in the clocks. So to overcome the failures in the clocks we have indigenously developed the atomic clocks in our system.

Our space applications have developed the atomic clocks and we got very good results. In the near future we will be launching our navigation satellite with our indigenous atomic clocks, thus the satellite navigation constellation will give accurate results.

Manish K Jha: Within two years in all likelihood? 

K. Sivan: Yes, that is already in place. We will augment this. Satellites have a lifetime. So we wanted to replace the satellites. So this system is going to be a continuous process. We are going to include the advancement in the atomic clocks also.

Manish K. Jha: Due to the COVID-19 induced logistics issue, the first uncrewed mission of Gaganyaan is extended. What is the development stage now? What are the elements of collaboration with DRDO on the mission? 

K. Sivan: The Gaganyaan mission is not an ISRO mission alone, it is a national mission because there are a lot of collaborations required with the different laboratories of DRDO. It is the first requirement. That way we are interacting with the DRDO labs to get the required systems. Also, these systems require international collaborations. We are interacting with Russia, France, Japan and the US for some of the subsystems. Because of COVID there is some delay but I am sure that we will be having an uncrewed mission. 

We need to have two uncrewed missions before a real mission. We are planning the first mission next year to validate some of the technologies. So in case there is any deficiency in the technology, which we will be able to gauge only through flight, the information can be utilized to enhance he technical robustness. 

So for the next mission we will ensure that everything is organized, then only we will go for the manned mission.

Manish K. Jha: So when do you think, we will be having a manned mission? And how many crew will be there?

K. Sivan: It is too early to tell right now. We want to see the first uncrewed mission results. We are waiting for that, then only we can talk about the next part.

(ISRO has successfully conducted the third long duration hot test of the liquid propellant Vikas Engine for the core L110 liquid stage of the human rated GSLV MkIII vehicle, as part of the engine qualification requirements for the Gaganyaan Programme.The engine was fired for a duration of 240 seconds at the engine test facility of ISRO Propulsion Complex (IPRC), in Tamil Nadu.)

Manish K. Jha: There are multiple organizations to explore the commercial viability of space related activities: New Space India Limited (NSIL), Antrix Corporation, Indian Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (INSPACe). How all these will translate into value creation in the space sector? 

K. Sivan: We are bringing private players to do the space activity, we wanted to have a mechanism for authorization and regulation. Also, we are using the New Space India Limited (NSIL) for all the commercial missions. Earlier all the missions of ISRO, whether commercial or scientific or technical, were done by ISRO only. Now commercial missions are transferred to NSIL so that ISRO can concentrate mostly on technology development, capacity building, infrastructure building so that the load will be reduced. So it’s not changing anything, it’s only expansion of the space activities.

Manish K. Jha: What could be the potential opportunity for young startups in India?

K. Sivan:  I think the startups are doing extremely well. They are involved in rockets, space crafts, space situational awareness and many other areas. Going by the interactions I have had with them, they are extremely bright and I am sure they will come up with innovative solutions. 

These solutions are going to be cost-effective and I have a feeling that we are going to capture the global market too.

Manish K. Jha: What could be the potential opportunity for satellite manufacturing/technology, data communications, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and payload related activities for the private sector Indian space entities? 

K. Sivan: There are a lot of opportunities available. By opening up the payload, ISRO may not take up the payload there. What I am saying is that they can produce and launch a satellite and provide the service. So the small entrepreneurs are involved in making advanced satellites with an innovative payload. It will be a very good thing and if they are launching, they can have the constellation or different types of satellites. It will be beneficial for the common people as well as for them.

Manish K. Jha: What does it take to create such a center of excellence that others don’t have?

K. Sivan:  Definitely, the way we are expanding the space activities, unlocking India’s potential in the space sector by doing this way and by bringing the change.  I am sure we will succeed in other areas.