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‘They were small satellites’ – how prejudiced foreign media tried to deny India her success

Sometimes all it takes is one cartoon. In September of 2014, the New York Times, which is often pummelled by the President of USA Donald Trump, and is known for its anti-India bent, had published the following cartoon:

New York Times cartoon

The racist cartoon showing India in poor light had been published just after India successfully put the Mangalyaan robotic probe into the orbit around Mars. The total cost of the mission was put at 4.5 bn rupees, making it one of the cheapest interplanetary space missions ever. Only the US, Russia and Europe (European Space Agency) had previously sent missions to Mars, and India succeeded in its first attempt – an achievement that eluded even the Americans and the Soviets.

Eventually New York Times had to apologise for their cartoon after public outrage.

Cut to 2017 and this time the New York Times (NYT) was joined by Financial Times (FT) in subtly underplaying yet another astounding feat by India:

These news reports were of course covering Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launching 104 satellites into orbit in a single mission. With this successful launch, India had smashed the previous record by the Russian Space Agency which had launched 37 satellites in one go.

Of the 104 satellites, 101 satellites were from international clients. Of the 101 international co-passenger nano-satellites, 96 are from the US, and one each from Israel, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates. Two Indian nano satellites also rode piggyback on the PSLV rocket along with the 714 kg CARTOSAT-2 Series satellite for earth observation

Cartosat-2 Series, which is the primary satellite, will provide remote sensing services after coming into operation. Images sent by it will be useful for coastal land use and regulation, road network monitoring, distribution of water and creation of land use maps, among others. The two Indian Nano-satellites INS-1A and INS-1B were developed as co-passenger satellites to accompany bigger satellites on PSLV. The primary objective of INS (ISRO Nano Satellite) is to provide an opportunity for ISRO technology demonstration payloads, provide a standard bus for launch on demand services.

Instead of lauding India’s achievements, NYT and FT chose to snidely point out that many of the satellites were in fact of smaller size. If indeed it was so easy to launch such smaller satellites, we wonder why an overwhelming majority of such satellites belonged to advanced nations such as USA which can easily send them in to orbit. The fact that international companies chose ISRO, shows that ISRO had what the market needed: reliability, technical expertise, at a fraction of the cost.

In fact, the real challenge in carrying so many satellites is not their weight, but the difficulty in launching so many of them in different orbits, without any of them crashing into each other.

Dr. K. Sivan, Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram, had explained the process and the challenges involved earlier this year:

“The satellites will be separated from the launch vehicle in different directions. The separation angle and time of separation will be such that one satellite will not collide with another. The satellite that gets launched first will move at a relatively faster velocity than the next satellite that is launched. Due to different relative velocities, the distance between the satellites will increase continuously but the orbit will be the same. When the vehicle reaches the orbital condition, we will wait for the disturbances to die down before the preparation for separation begins.”

An error of even one degree difference in separation angle combined with relative velocity can cause a collision and hence such a task of simultaneously launching over a 100 satellites requires a high degree of skill. NYT and FT could have learned this if they had talked to an actual scientist, but instead FT chose to quote Sonia Gandhi’s pet economist Jean Dreze, from the time he criticised India’s Mangalyaan mission, as “part of Indian elite’s delusional quest for superpower status”. FT also chose to juxtapose the spending on our space program against poverty alleviation measures.

The attitudes of NYT and FT’s reporting showed that they still couldn’t come to terms with the fact that a seemingly third world nation had galloped ahead in the space race, or at least one leg of the race. Has NYT or FT ever questioned USA’s exorbitant expenditures of various sectors even when an estimated 43.1 million US citizens (13.5% of the total population) live in poverty?

Or perhaps is it a growing worry that India is on the cusp of developing a name for itself in the International market for having a robust, technologically advanced satellite launching system, which also enjoys a huge cost advantage. The global market for nano and micro-satellites, is set to grow close to $3 billion in the next three years. ISRO sources point out that some 3,000 satellites will be ready for launch in the next 10 years for navigation, maritime, surveillance and other space-based applications.

ISRO has fast made a name for itself for its low cost services, which are attracting a lot of foreign customers as new private players like SpaceX are yet to improve their cost effectiveness. For a satellite launch, SpaceX can charge around USD 60 million, while ISRO charged an average of USD 3 million per satellite between 2013 and 2015. The forex revenue for ISRO’s commercial arm, Antrix Corporation, went up 204.9 percent in 2015.

While NYT and FT may mock nano-satellites, Prakash Chandra, a science writer, rightly mentions here that smaller sized satellites are the future:

Having a large number of small satellites instead of a few heavy ones makes sense as they could cover the same piece of ground more frequently — say, every 15 minutes — for collecting imagery. This could spell a revolution in the way satellites are used — whether it is helping fishermen identify catches, keeping track of crops, or detecting natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. Similarly, increasing miniaturisation in electronics makes redundant the use of heavy satellites for telecommunications and remote sensing. Smaller satellites deliver better coverage at a fraction of the cost.

He argues that this is exactly where India could make a killing since as satellites become smaller and less expensive to build, launch vehicles need to be correspondingly cheaper so that the number and rate of launches could be higher to keep launch costs down.

A more mature international media would have realised the significance of this launch and allowed India to bask in the glory of the PSLV, but petty minded publications like NYT and FT have exposed themselves, while trying to show India down. It started with a Cartoon, India has replied with a Cartosat, and the game is still on!

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