When you think of space exploration, NASA
or the European Space Agency probably leap to mind.
But a lot of incredible missions come from
other parts of the world, too.
Like, Japan’s JAXA returned the first samples
from an asteroid, and Russia’s Roscosmos
has a flawless record delivering astronauts
to the International Space Station.
One country you may not have thought of is
India, but the Indian Space Research Organisation,
or ISRO, is on its way to becoming a leader
in space exploration — and they’re just getting started.
When it comes to launching spacecraft, ISRO
has a great track record.
Back in February, they made global headlines
when a single Indian rocket launched 104 satellites
— a new record.
Most were shoebox-sized cubesats, but the
rocket successfully put them all on the right
paths, one every few seconds — all while
traveling at more than 27,000 kilometers per hour!
Thanks to their growing reputation, these
satellites came from all over the world, including
the U.S., Switzerland, Israel, and Kazakhstan.
In 2008, ISRO also sent their first spacecraft
to the Moon, where it did some basic science
and proved their technology worked.
But they truly arrived on the world space
scene in 2014, when their Mars Orbiter Mission
entered orbit around — you guessed it! — Mars.
That put them in a tiny club of interplanetary
nations alongside Russia, the U.S., and the
And on top of that, ISRO were the only ones
to get into Mars orbit successfully on their first try!
That by itself is a real accomplishment, but
ISRO also had big plans to collaborate with
NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft.
MAVEN showed up at Mars at about the same
time, and both orbiters were tasked with studying
the thin Martian atmosphere.
While MAVEN’s orbit was designed to skim
near the planet, the orbit for the ISRO mission
could take the spacecraft more than 500 times
farther away, allowing researchers to piece
together a complete view of the atmosphere.
The Mars Orbiter Mission even contained a
key piece of technology NASA’s satellite
didn’t have: a methane detector.
Here on Earth, methane is primarily created
from life — like farting and burping cows
— and with ISRO’s methane detector, researchers
hoped to map the global distribution of the
gas all around Mars.
At least, that was the plan.
Unfortunately, because just getting to Mars
is such a challenge, ISRO considered the whole
mission a so-called “technology demonstration”.
So most of their efforts went into things
like interplanetary communication… not scientific instruments.
Some of their equipment worked great, but
things probably didn’t turn out so well
for the methane detector.
As of 2016, the mission hadn’t found any
methane in the Martian atmosphere.
But since other missions, like Curiosity,
have found trace amounts of it, that could
mean the ISRO orbiter just wasn’t sensitive
enough, or that there was another issue.
Now, ISRO is developing a much more capable
Martian satellite, so they could learn a lot
more in the 2020s.
And the ESA and Roscosmos’s Trace Gas Orbiter
will be investigating the methane situation
in the meantime.
Still, ISRO’s first Mars mission was a success
in a lot of way, and the organization is now
ready for even more exploration.
And until then, they’re also making major
contributions to astronomy, with a space telescope
called AstroSat that launched in 2015.
You can think of AstroSat kind of like a mash-up
of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra
It’s way smaller than either of those, but
can still accomplish something really cool:
observing a single astronomical source in
a whole bunch of wavelengths at once!
“Astronomical source” is just fancy science-talk
for something in space that emits, well, anything.
In this case, AstroSat can find something
we see in the sky and study it in visible,
ultraviolet, and X-ray light — all at the
To do something like that with Hubble and
Chandra would require tons of coordination,
but AstroSat makes it happen for everything
it looks at.
And earlier this year it contributed behind
the scenes to a story you probably heard a lot about.
This June, LIGO detected gravitational waves,
or ripples in space-time caused by merging
black holes, for only the third time.
And a day after they detected them, an observatory
in Hawaii saw a flash in the very same part
of the sky.
At first, scientists thought this flash was
probably the afterglow of the merging black
holes — but it wasn’t.
Follow-up observations from AstroSat helped
determine that a distant gamma ray burst — probably
from a supernova — had just happened to
appear in the same part of the sky at almost
the exact same time.
Talk about astronomical odds, am I right?
Without AstroSat, it probably would have been
a lot harder to figure out what that flash was.
Squishing two space telescopes into one is
just one example of how ISRO puts its own
unique twist on space exploration, and they’re
not slowing down anytime soon.
In addition to their planned Mars mission,
ISRO is getting ready to land on the Moon,
and is working on missions to explore Venus,
the Sun, and even Jupiter.
It’s an ambitious plan, but they’re off
to a great start and, when it comes to exploring
space, it’s always the more, the merrier!
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Space, and special thanks to our patrons on
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