#Throwback2020: Success in space and satellites

#Throwback2020: Success in space and satellites

Some 101 launches of orbital satellites took place this year.


NEW DELHI: The pandemic may have slowed down life on earth, but it could not deter the world from looking beyond. As most activities came to a sudden halt, the space agencies across the globe persevered through the crisis. Some had to push back their crucial space missions, others struggled to keep them on track, while a few managed to script history.

Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) began the year with the launch of a high-powered communication satellite GSAT-30 on-board a European rocket from French Guiana. It replaced the aging INSAT 4A to continue providing high quality television, telecommunication, broadcasting services to the Indian subcontinent with extended coverage over Asia and Australia.

The lockdown ensured no further launch took place for the next ten months, until November, when India’s premier space agency returned to the launch pad to inject EOS-01–an earth observation satellite—into space along with nine other customer satellites. This was soon followed by the launch of the country's forty second communications satellite CMS-01 in December which replaced the aging GSAT-12.

While ISRO managed to keep its regular satellite launches on track, the pandemic cast a shadow on its bigger space missions. This included a fresh bid to achieve a successful soft landing on the moon which Chandrayaan-2 had failed to achieve last year, and first of the two unmanned missions of Gaganyaan, India’s first human-spaceflight programme which was expected to take off this December. 

Nonetheless, the groundwork for the 2022 Gaganyaan mission continued. The agency completed the selection of the astronauts and began their training. The process of human rating for GSLV MkIII selected for the historic mission also remained in progress. 

Globally, as many as 101 orbital launches took place in this turbulent year. The US was top of the leader board with 40 successes out of 44. China came next with 33 successful launches out of 37 attempted. Russia had a perfect score with 16 satellites reaching their orbital locations. Ditto with Japan which had four immaculate launches, and Europe had four clear takeoffs and one failure with Iran and India acing it with two successes each.

A large share of the launches were accounted for by low earth orbiting birds which were meant for earth observation, technology demonstration and to provide internet in select areas.

Amongst the big communications birds which were sent into space included: Tiantong 1-02 (mobile communications, China), Galaxy 30 (Intelsat, communications, North America), BSat4b (Broadcasting Satellite System Corp, communications, Japan), Ekspress 80 and Ekspress 103 (Russian Satellite Communications Co, communications, Russia), Apstar 6D (APT Holdings; communications, China), JCSat 17 (Sky Perfect JSat Corp; communications, Japan), GSat30 (ISRO, communications, India, Kourou), and Eutlesat Konnect (Eutelsat, communications, Africa & Europe). Palapa N1 – a satellite owned by Palapa Satelit Nusantara Sejahtera, a joint venture between Indosat Ooredoo and Pasifik Satelit Nusantara, or PSN – met with a fiery end after its launch vehicle the Long March 3B had engine failure.

The year will be noted for the achievement by the Mission Extension Vehicle MEV-1 which became the first telerobotically-operated spacecraft to service another satellite on-orbit when in February 2020 it completed the first phase of a five-year mission to extend the life of the Intelsat 901 (I-901) satellite. It was brought back from the graveyard orbit to a geosynschronous one by April 2020, opening up a future where human intervention is not needed for on-orbit satellite servicing, like it was for dealing with the Hubble telescope in the early 2000s.   

2020 also marked the first time a private company successfully undertook a crewed mission into the low earth orbit. Elon Musk's SpaceX achieved the feat after it was able to put two astronauts into space aboard its spacecraft Crew Dragon, heradling a new chapter in commercial space operations. It was a busy year for the American aerospace manufacturer which injected as many as 26 satellites into space. The company is racing to get its Starlink constellation in operation to provide high speed internet connection from the skies.

The year also witnessed the return of UK based broadband satellite communications company, OneWeb which put a total of 36 communication satellites into space on board a Russian Soyuz rocket. The satellite operator which recently emerged from bankruptcy is eyeing to build a massive constellation of over 650 satellites to beam internet service to people. Early this year, India’s Bharti Global had picked up a 45 per cent stake in the company.

In the global space arena, Mars continued to allure the space agencies and three countries managed to keep their date—a brief time window which comes around every two years.

The first was the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which scripted history with the successful launch of its spacecraft named Hope— the first-ever interplanetary mission by any Arab country. It was followed by the launch of Tianwen-1 by China in July and Perseverance rover by the United States a week later. All three spacecraft are expected to enter the Martian orbit early next year.

However, the pandemic marred Europe and Russia's joint Mars mission and the launch of its first Mars rover, Rosalind Franklin probe, was postponed to 2022.

Among other ground-breaking missions of 2020 was China’s Chang'e-5 lunar capsule which returned to Earth carrying fresh samples of moon rocks. China has now become just the third country to explore the moon's surface, after the US and the former Soviet Union, and the first to successfully return from the moon since Soviet Union’s Luna 24 spacecraft in 1976.