India will boldly go to Venus for the first time and re-visit the Mars very soon.
Buried and hidden in the hundreds of pages of the new format electronic Budget documents, is the first formal acknowledgement by the government about these two new bold inter-planetary sojourns to Earth's immediate neighbours.
This uplifting news comes ahead of the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO's) attempt to undertake its mega launch where it will drop off into space not one, two or three, but a full load of 104 satellites in a single mission.
No other country has ever tried to hit a century in a single mission. The last world record is held by Russia, which in 2014 rocketed 37 satellites in a single launch using a modified inter-continental ballistic missile.
If all goes according to plan, on the morning of February 15, ISRO
will launch into space three Indian satellites and 101 small foreign satellites using the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).
India is hoping to better the previous world record by two-and-a-half times. ISRO, considered the new kid on the block in the multi-billion dollar world launcher market, hopes to set a benchmark for other space fairing nations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's love affair with space is quite evident. The government, it seems, is rather pleased with the Indian space agency as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley gave the Department of Space a whopping 23 per cent increase in its budget. Under the space sciences section, the Budget mentions provisions "for Mars Orbiter Mission II and Mission to Venus".
The second mission to Mars is tentatively slated for the 2021-2022 timeframe and as per existing plans it may well involve putting a robot on the surface of the Red Planet.
While ISRO's first mission to Mars, undertaken in 2013, was purely an Indian mission, the French space agency wants to collaborate with ISRO
in making the Mars rover.
In fact, on a visit to India this month, Michael M Watkins, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA, said they would be keen to at least put a telematics module so NASA's rovers and the Indian satellites are able to talk to each other.
India's maiden mission to Venus, the second planet of the Solar System named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, is in all probability going to be a modest orbiter mission.
Watkins said a mission to Venus is very-very worthwhile as so little is understood about that planet and NASA would definitely be willing to partner in India's maiden voyage to Venus.
Towards that, NASA and ISRO
have already initiated talks this month on trying to jointly undertake studies on using electrical propulsion for powering this mission.
India's original inter-planetary dreamer K Kasturirangan, former chairman of ISRO, says, "India should be part of this global adventure and exploring Venus and Mars is very worthwhile since humans definitely need another habitation beyond Earth."
Closer to home, on its 39th launch, India's workhorse rocket, the PSLV, will lift off carrying 1,378 kg of robots to be deployed in space.
The first to be let off will be India's high resolution Cartosat-2 series satellite made especially to monitor activities of India's hostile neighbours at a resolution of less than a metre keeping a bird's eye view on both Pakistan and China.
This earth imaging capability is not unusual but the rest of the passengers are unique. There are two small Indian satellites, each weighing less than 10 kg, that are forerunners of a new class of satellites called ISRO
Nano Satellites which the engineers seek to master.
Next, the PSLV will release, at an altitude of over 500 km, 101 satellites — one each from Israel, Kazakhstan, The Netherlands, Switzerland, the UAE and a whopping 96 from the US. It is only recently that American private companies have warmed up to ISRO
as India offers cheap and reliable option.
Eighty-eight of the American satellites belong to a San Francisco-based start-up company Planet Inc which is sending a swarm of small 4.7 kg each satellite it calls "Doves". This constellation will image earth like never before and with a high repeat rate providing satellite imagery at an affordable cost.
Ensuring that no collisions take place is an art that ISRO
has mastered from previous launches. In less than 600 seconds, all 101 satellites will be released into space, each travelling at a whopping velocity of over 27,000 km per hour or at 40 times the speed of an average passenger airliner.
Some experts are suggesting that in a bid to earn some money, ISRO
is actually contributing significantly to the creation of space junk as these small satellites are really not very useful.
But Laura Grego, senior scientist, Global Security Program, Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, USA says, "I think that these launches can be done responsibly and provide benefits to all people. Developing a culture of responsible space launch and operations is key as more and more countries become space-faring.
"While the number of countries that can launch satellites independently is still quite small, many dozens of countries own and operate satellites," Grego added.
Kasturirangan says, "India has the capability putting several satellites in a single launch and demonstrating that capability is certainly not bad as it adds to India's credibility and then later if ISRO
deploys this capability of formation flying in a constellation of its own satellites it would be a useful addition to its arsenal."