Space: Indian space agency prototypes its first crew capsule

India - NASAIndia is about to take one small step towards human space flight. Last week the country’s space agency unveiled a prototype of its first crew capsule, a 4-metre-high module designed to carry two people into low Earth orbit.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is planning a test flight for later this year – even though it still awaits government approval and funding for a human space-flight programme. The unpiloted capsule will fly on the maiden launch of a new type of rocket that would otherwise have carried a dummy payload.

“We thought it better to gain some confidence in the design of our crew module,” says Sundaram Ramakrishnan, director of ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

Built by Hindustan Aeronautics in Bangalore, the prototype capsule cannot be hermetically sealed and so cannot take people into space. But if the rocket launch is a success, ISRO should be able to remotely test some in-flight controls and see how the module survives the stresses of re-entry and landing at sea.

The capsule will fly on a new variant of India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, with its first test in a few months. When fully operational the rocket will loft satellites of about 4 tonnes to geosynchronous orbit, or place up to 9 tonnes into low Earth orbit. It could even be used to launch a future robotic moon mission.

The rocket’s test flight will only explore part of its capabilities, but it should be enough to launch the crew capsule into sub-orbital flight, just over 100 kilometres above Earth. Instruments will relay data about the capsule’s speed, acceleration and temperature.

Engineers will also monitor its structural integrity as it re-enters the atmosphere, as well as the performance of heat-resistant tiles and a carbon nose-cap designed to protect astronauts from the heat of re-entry. The capsule will deploy two parachutes as it falls back to Earth, which should allow it to splashdown gently in the Bay of Bengal.

India most recently launched its first Mars mission, and ISRO has plans to send a lander and rover together to the moon around 2017. But there is no time frame for government approval of human space-flight, and Ramakrishnan reckons it would take at least five years from getting approval to putting Indian astronauts into low Earth orbit.

While about 70 per cent of the manufacturing for any given ISRO mission is done by India’s private sector, it is unlikely that a single commercial firm will step in to the space race, as several companies have done in the US.

Still, Ramakrishnan thinks human space flight is a crucial component of any advanced space programme and an important step for India. A crewed mission to Mars, for instance, may have to be an international collaboration as it will probably be too expensive for any one nation to pull off alone. “In that context, our having this capability makes us a strong partner for any international effort,” says Ramakrishnan.

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute in Washington DC, agrees. “India is a major spacefaring country, and it would seem reasonable to expect that it would eventually want to develop its own human space-flight capability.”

Syndicated content: Anil Ananthaswamy, New Scientist

Image: New Sceintist – India, from where it aims to go (Image: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC/SPL)

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