India launches Astrosat, Asia’s unique eye in space

Expanding the frontiers and dimensions of its space program, India launched its first dedicated astronomy satellite Astrosat on September 28 (Monday).


Astrosat becomes Asia’s only functioning space observatory as Japan’s Suzaku (Astro-EII) had retired on August 26. It forms part of times space scientists welcome as the ‘golden age of astronomy’ characterized by unprecedented global co-operation and co-ordination in studying the cosmos.

The 1,550-kg Astrosat, the latest major project by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), is the first satellite in the world capable of studying the universe in the widest yet range of multi-wavelength electromagnetic spectrum.

ISRO’s  Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV)-C30 Astrosat mission roared off belching fire from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota Monday at 10 am IST, hauling Astrosat into its 650-km, near-equatorial orbit in space.

Along with the Astrosat, the 40-meters tall PSLV rocket (height of a 12-storey building) hauled to low earth orbit four small satellites from the US, and one each from Indonesia and Canada.

This is the first time India is launching American satellites (*1).  The four nano satellites are from the San Francisco-based Spire Global Inc., a global weather and maritime data providing agency with 20 satellites, and offices in Singapore and Glasgow.

Making the gold paper-covered Astrosat involved leading space science institutions in India including the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Physical Research Laboratory and Raman Research Institute. The Canadian Space Agency and the University of Leicester in the UK also collaborated.

It has been a special week for Indian astronomers. September 24 is the first anniversary of India’s and Asia’s first Mars craft Mangalyaan orbiting the Red Planet.

Mangalyaan can function for many more years than originally thought of, said ISRO chief A S Kiran Kumar. It was not expected to survive beyond March 2015.

On Mangalyaan anniversary day,  Asia Times met with TIFR scientists who created three of the five observatory instruments aboard Astrosat.

Professors Kulinder Pal Singh, A R Rao, J S Yadav and Astrosat engineer Parag Shah talked about Astrosat.

According to them, it is the world’s first observatory satellite to simultaneously use a comprehensive multi-wavelength band of ultra-violet rays, visible and X-rays to observe distant objects in the cosmos (*2).

Astrosat will study the birth, life and death of stars, and mysterious phenomena like black holes, neutron stars quasars, and pulsars (*3).

“Our aim is to understand the DNA of such stellar objects,” said Prof A.R Rao who headed the team to build the Cadmium Zinc Telluride Imager (CZTI) payload on Astrosat.

Until now, astronomers were getting only a limited angle from space telescopes using a narrow band wavelength such as X-rays or ultra-violet rays. For instance, while NASA’s Hubble Telescope and the Chandra observatory use visible and X-rays, Astrosat will give an unprecedented holistic aspect in combining visible, ultraviolet, low and high energy X-ray regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Astrosat powers can further expand by co-coordinating with other spacecraft and ground-based observatories.

“It’s like the blind men and the elephant, with each giving a partial aspect,” explained Prof Rao, “Astrosat gives a more complete picture. From a single satellite, we see the same object in different ways like never before”.

Besides the European Space Agency, India becomes the fourth country after the US, Russia and Japan to launch a dedicated astronomy satellite or space telescope.

The pioneering Hubble, a joint effort by NASA and the European Space Agency in 1990, heralded the era of orbiting space telescopes to study the universe in more spectacular clarity from outside earth, from beyond distortion of the atmosphere, clouds and light pollution from cities that affect ground-based telescopes.

The TIFR scientists, however, laughed at media reports this week calling the Astrosat ‘India’s Hubble’. Prof K P Singh, project manager of the soft X-ray telescope imaging telescope (SXT) aboard Astrosat, rubbished comparisons between Astrosat and Hubble space telescope that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Prof Singh explained how NASA’s space telescopes, like Hubble, the Chandra or the Swift, are far more advanced than the Astrosat in their super-specialized use of visible rays and X-rays.

China too will be launching its first space observatory in 2016, and Japan will be launching the advanced Astro-H. Japanese Space Agency JAXA reported in April 2015 that all observation instruments have been installed in Astro-H and “preparations for launch are turning the final corner.”

The Astrosat is unique and special as the first single dedicated astronomy satellite to combine the range of work of many specialized space telescopes as well as ground-based observatories.

The interest and response to Astrosat has been phenomenal from across the world, said Prof JS Yadav, who in 2012 succeeded Professors PC Agarwal and R. K. Manchanda as project manager in building the complex Large Area X-ray Proportional Counter (LAXPC), the largest payload component aboard Astrosat.

The complex LAXPC is an example of the innovative technology in Astrosat. A low resolution, non-imaging instrument, three co-aligned identical LAXPC detectors in Astrosat will provide unprecedented efficiency in detecting x-rays from distant galaxies.

“The LAXPC instrument will provide the largest effective area among all the satellite missions flown so far worldwide,” explained Prof Yadav, “and will remain so during next five years (planned operation life of Astrosat) for X-ray studies in 3-80 keV energy range.”.

Astrosat is a purer science mission than India’s successful Moon and Mars missions that were more demonstrative of capacity and preparation for future manned space flights. It aims to bring a better understanding of the universe at the mundane level, and like the Hubble, at the least offer us a stark reminder of larger scheme of things.

Astrosat will be managed from the spacecraft control center at Mission Operations Complex (MOX) of ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bangalore.

The ISTRAC forms a comprehensive network of ground stations that ISRO has built in recent years across India, Indonesia and Mauritius. It provides spacecraft command, control, tracking and multiple support services to orbital and deep space missions of ISRO and other space agencies worldwide.

From MOX, the unique Astrosat data will be processed, archived and distributed to scientific institutions and organizations through the Indian Space Science Data Centre (ISSDC), part of the Indian Deep Space Network Centre at Byalalu, a village 40 km from Bangalore.

1) Countries whose satellites were launched through ISRO before September 28, 2015: Germany (9 satellites), Republic of Korea (1), Belgium (1), Indonesia (1), Argentina (1), Italy (1), Israel (1), Canada (7), Japan (3), The Netherlands (1), Denmark (2), Turkey (1), Switzerland (2), Algeria (1), Singapore (2), Luxembourg (1), France (2), Austria (2), United Kingdom (5).
2) Astrosat, official website of the Astrosat mission, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)
3) What are black holes, quasars and active galaxies, European Space Agency

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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