Hit by disruptions due to the coronavirus pandemic, the launch of India's unmanned space mission under the first leg of Gaganyaan, planned for December 2020, is likely to be delayed, sources said.
It was part of the two unmanned missions to be undertaken by the Indian Space Research Organisation ahead of the planned launch of India's maiden human spaceflight under 'Gaganyaan' in December 2021.
The likely delay in the first unmanned mission was recently conveyed to the Space Commission, the apex policy-making body on space related issues.
Two years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the human space mission in his Independence Day address.
The final and the main component, the manned mission of Gaganyaan, was scheduled six months later in December 2021, much before the 2022 deadline.
had earlier indicated that there would be a delay in several missions as the space body's work has been hit by disruptions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Among the major projects that have been affected are Chandrayaan-3 and Gaganyaan. Chandrayaan-3, the third mission to Moon, was scheduled later this year.
The sources said that efforts are on to stick to the deadline of 2022 for launching the human space mission.
"We will not be able to meet deadline for the December 2020 launch of the unmanned mission. The coronavirus pandemic has led to several disruptions. This was also recently conveyed to the Space Commission," a source said.
The sources added that staff members from ISRO's different centres were infected. Only essential and process related work is on. Also, the related industry has been affected.
Even the training of four astronauts in Russia was hit due to the pandemic. However, the training has now resumed.
"Even if we are not able to launch the manned mission by December 2021, we have eight months to cover up for the time we have lost," the source said.
The spacecraft will be placed in a low earth orbit of 300-400 kilometres. The total programme cost is expected to be less than Rs 10,000 crores.
In June, Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, had said even though because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the training of four Indian astronauts in Russia had to be halted, yet the opinion of Chairman ISRO and the scientific team is that there is a cushion period kept both in the training programme and launch deadline.
The training of astronauts has now been resumed and the launch is scheduled to take place as planned, before the 75th anniversary of India's independence in 2022, he had said.
Four astronauts selected for the country’s first human spaceflight will return from Russia in March and undergo training modules designed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) for the mission slated for December 2021.
While in Russia, their training is helping them get accustomed to conditions in space — the US, Russia and China are the only three countries to have conducted human spaceflights — the four astronauts will undergo mission-specific training back home.
“The four astronauts, who had been selected from a pool of Indian Air Force pilots, are currently undergoing basic training in GCTC (Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre) in Russia. They will be back by March next year. They will then receive specific training in India, for which the simulators have been defined. These are the areas where the industry will be contributing in a rich way to realise the simulators,” Dr Unnikrishnan Nair, director, Human Spaceflight Centre of Isro, said.
There will be three main parts to the training in India: a module on the overall project, a module for crew members, and a module on the flight hardware and software.
“Each one is more and more complex (than the previous one),” he said at the International Space Conference and Exhibition organised by Confederation of Indian Industry in association with Isro and its other arms.
India’s first human spaceflight mission, Gaganyaan, has been designed to carry three Indian astronauts to the low earth orbit — an orbit of 2,000km or less — for a period of five to seven days.
But Isro chairperson Dr K Sivan told HT earlier this year that two unmanned flights prior to the final mission will determine whether just one or two crew members will be taken to space and whether the crew will be there for the entire duration, or for just one day, or just over two hours.
Isro has planned the first unmanned flight in December 2020, the second in July 2021, and the first human spaceflight mission in December 2021 — much ahead of the August 15, 2022, deadline set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, the timeline could be affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to officials.
Before the first unmanned flight, Isro needs to complete at least three major tests — an air drop test for the parachute system that will demonstrate the ability to successfully recover an orbiting space capsule; a flight of the test vehicle; and an abort test to demonstrate the escape of the crew in case of an emergency at the launch pad.
Isro has also shortlisted six experiments that will be carried out in space aboard the first unmanned flight under the Gaganyaan mission. This includes four biological experiments – a study on changes in kidney stone formation in drosophila melanogaster (the common fruit fly), the study of SIRT1 gene in it, microbial contamination, and co-crystallisation under microgravity conditions.
Nair said Gaganyaan will be the first of Isro’s human spaceflight mission, which will be expanded to the exploration of other planets and also the moon in the future. For this, Isro will partner with the industry and academia to develop technologies such as construction in space, tele-robotics and artificial intelligence.
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