ISRO’s updated website – an overview

On 21st December 2014 ISRO updated its website (www.isro.org duplicated at www.isro.gov.in).  Even over the first few days after the update there have been additional minor updates so some of the screen dumps below may not precisely match what you may see.

Although there are still some shortcomings, the new clean, fresh user interface offers simpler navigation to information that has largely always been available but is now easier to get to. The new website is welcomed for another reason. Until the launch of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission, ISRO did not really invest time and effort in its interface with the public. ISRO’s online presence is an international resource not just a national one. It is not useful only for the Indian nationals living abroad but the growing global community fascinated by space exploration and sees ISRO contribution as a critical endeavour for humanity’s future beyond Earth.

ISRO publishes much of what it does but could do more. Why the reluctance?  Could it be that ISRO feels a little overwhelmed by the established players with their substantial budget and impressive achievements? Material published after the demise of the USSR indicated it used its accomplishments in space to revive its global reputation. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 and then Gagarin six years later, changed how the USSR was perceived by the international community. ISRO is likewise helping India to step outside the shadow of a third world country. January 2014 started with a successful test of its indigenous cryogenic engine and ended with an equally successful crew module test launched atop its largest rocket GSLV3 in December. There was also a small matter of its Mars Orbiter Mission arriving at Mars in September to global acclaim. Although ISRO is finally beginning to recognise the strategic value of engaging with social media including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, the engagement to date is at best – just a start.

Before highlighting some of the upsides of the updated website, I will start with an omission which oddly I found personally extremely  disappointing.

A mission statement in the header of the original website but missing from the new.

The vision expressed in the original homepage “The Indian Space Research Organisation Space Technology in the service of Human kind”. What it meant to ISRO or what it should mean to others was something ISRO never explained.  I was surprised by how sad I felt to see it missing. It did echo of something greater than just national ambitions and in using Humankind and not Mankind, ISRO hinted at a more pluralistic and egalitarian vision.  It is a key omission which I hope ISRO will reinstate in a future revision.

OK so what’s new. The 1990s style website which used multiple fonts of different sizes, colours and styles and the animated gifs has given way to a new uncluttered, slicker and clean home page. It is easier on the eye and consistent with modern web designs. Although potentially slow when using the mobile 3G network the new website has been optimised for mobile phone access.  The ISRO timeline (available via the About page or Footer) lists clickable hyperlinks to key ISRO  milestones from 1962 to the present works surprisingly well even on a mobile phone, although ISRO itself was formally established in 1969.

Both

The old and the new

Instead of cramming the home page with information, the new top-level menus point to specific areas like Missions, Spacecraft, Launchers, Applications, Media and About. The home page has many high quality images you only get to see if you scroll down. Excellent images but the home page is probably not the best place for them. First time visitors, especially those using mobile devices or low-bandwidth connection will experience a slow and disappointing response. For the first time, hi-res images and videos are now available under the Media menu. Announced almost a year ago ISRO’s dedicated YouTube channel has not yet made an appearance.

Shortening the length of the home page would also allow visitors easier access to the footer which really does contain some useful links (i.e. International Cooperation, Space Policy and ISRO’s Data Portal) that may otherwise be overlooked.    The redesign could also include a window to ISRO’s twitter feed.

Footer

Interesting and useful links in the footer but the overly lengthy home page renders the footer some what inaccessibl

One of the lesser known of ISRO’s sources is its Data Portal. By definition, as a portal it is not a data repository but a collection pointers to resources. Many of these sources have been available for a long time but have largely gone unknown and therefore unused. Although there is a need to increase the quantity and quality of the data available,  through this portal ISRO makes available the services for which ISRO was established directly to the public.

ISRO’s Data portal. I expect this is the one area that will grow in the quantity of data available in the coming years

The publications section has several brochures and documents for download in pdf format. Although it has some way to go, one of the more mature products from ISRO is known as Bhuvan.

Bhuvan is a multi-language Graphical Information Service available for and developed in India using indigenous datasets. Bhuvan, meaning Earth is a Google Maps like service launched in 2009. It provides high resolution 2D and 3D maps of many parts of India using satellite data collected over many years. The services available include

  • Disaster Services – which include realtime and historical information on Cyclone, Drought, earthquake, Flood, Fire and Landslide.
  • For Indian fisherman ISRO advisories known as Potential Fishing Zone (PFZ), recommends where they should go and fish.  These advisories are generated using Sea Surface Temperature and relative abundance of Chlorophyll derived from satellite imagery.
  • Ministry of the Environment and Forest – plot of lakes & rivers, land degradation and land use (since 2005-2011)

Bhuvan is an indian service designed for the benefit of the Indian population using using indigenous data and infrastructure. It is governed by the 2011 Remote Sensing Data Policy, so whilst that policy restricts public access to high resolution data for areas deemed to be in the interest of national security, the  same data is freely available to anyone via Google Earth.

This is the first overhaul the ISRO website has received in several years. Although there is much more  available than indicated in this short review, ISRO is not yet exploiting the full potential of social media.  In the global headlines that followed the success of the Mars Orbiter Mars, ISRO’s ability to bring costs down featured prominently. Sure, every rupee spent on publicity is a rupee  unavailable to its space program. But that is a false economy.

No one does outreach and publicity better than NASA but no one has a similar budget or the long-standing tradition. ISRO may not have the marketing skills or the experience but it does have the technical skills and the tech savvy people who can exploit social media.  ISRO needs a greater strategic commitment to policy, procedures and resources to showcase its achievements.    A greater use of its twitter account (say at least one tweet per day)  is one easy win that ISRO can implement right now without excessive cost or effort.

ISRO has notched up some truly remarkable achievements to date and has ambitious plans for the coming years. ISRO has a very poor track record of recording its activities that future historians (and ISRO itself) will lament. Of all the media – social media is probably the least expensive and most effective. Now that ISRO has recognised its value it should step up and engage with it fully.

Book Review – India’s Rise as a Space Power

Title: India’s Rise as a Space PowerIndias Rise as a Space Power
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, India Pvt Ltd
Author: U.R Rao
ISBN-10: 9382993487 ISBN-13: 978-9382993483

In the April of 1971, the USSR approached India and offered to launch an Indian satellite. Vikram Sarabhai asked UR Rao to develop and lead the program. In December 1971 Sarabhai died. Perhaps it was this sacred memory of his mentor, friend and boss that gave Rao the infinite drive to put an Indian built satellite in Earth orbit with remarkable haste.  Where Sarabhai had given India a space program, Rao gave India the confidence to design,  build and operate satellites.  This was the start of Rao’s fascinating career with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)  that culminated in his decade long tenure as ISROs’ chairman starting in 1984. In this book, Rao recalls his personal recollections whilst at the helm when ISRO started to build and launch science, communication and remote sensing satellites, initiate program for the GSLV 3 heavy launch vehicle and established Antrix, ISROs commercial arm.

The main thrust of the book documents Rao’s key contribution, specifically establishing India’s satellites program and developing  the ground based infrastructure to receive, process and disseminate the resulting data.   It also captures the collaborative, competitive and antagonistic environment of the Cold War that prevailed at the time.

The author shares some remarkable insights that given his central role, have an unquestionable authority.  For example, the Soviet Ambassador Pegov in May 1971 asserted that USSR would only launch India’s first satellite if it was heavier than the first satellite launched by the Chinese (p27).  India was not a just a passive receiver of help from the USSR but as professor Kovtunenko acknowledged India was of “immense value” (p47) to the Soviet space program too. The USSR launched the first three satellites (Aryabhata, Bhaskara 1 & 2) and EAS launched the 4th (Ariane Passenger PayLoad Experiment APPLE).  All were launched without charge. Drawing on his personal international contacts he provided the leadership and the inspiration to make it happen.

In chapter eleven Rao describes his own reservations in the value of accepting the Soviet’s offer to launch an Indian Astronaut. Indian Air Force’s Rakesh Sharma returned from his 8 days in space in April 1984 to huge public celebrations. But ISRO was not ready and could not build on that success at the time.

Most of the 21 chapters in the book deal with the potential of space technology to help mitigate poverty and elaborate on how far that potential has been realised.  Chapter 19 deals with one of the most fascinating episodes in ISRO’s history and Rao was at the centre of it at the time.  India had mastered rockets that used solid propellants and liquid propellants.  ISRO then embarked on a  program to acquire cryogenic engine technology (engines that use liquid Oxygen at -182C and Liquid Hydrogen at -253C) the most efficient rocket engines that exist. The very low operating temperature is a tough engineering challenge. This episode illuminates not only the political upheavals of the early 1990s but also the economics of national space programs.  India had negotiated a cryogenic technology transfer deal with the Soviets but soon after the breakup of the USSR, the USA flexing its muscle as the only superpower forced Russia to renege on the deal. Threatened by the commercial impact of India as a rising space power, USA falsely claimed that the Indo-Soviet technology transfer deal violated the Missile Technology Control Regime.

It is traditional for any book review to include aspects that were not up to scratch even if it ticks all the boxes. A key omission was an index. This is true for any non-fiction book but especially one that deals with key events, people and places. Most of the book uses clear articulate text for which no scientific background is required. However there are small section that are a little heavy e.g “12 C-band transponders provided a 10/12 functional redundancy” (p96). Rao after all is an accomplished cosmic ray scientist with a substantial track record in writing scientific papers.

The author uses the word “parallely” frequently throughout the book.  Initially it was a little repetitive but ultimately this one word conveys the central message that satellite development was not taking place in isolation but several elements of a national infrastructure steeped in science and technology were being harnessed simultaneously for a modern India as the 21st century approached.Sarabhai’s original vision was finally being realised.   

In what is one of the shortest chapters (Chapter 8) Rao describes the birth of the ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC).  Today ISAC is  where satellites are designed and built before going to Earth orbit or in to deep space. ISAC is a central component of Rao’s extensive legacy and this book authoritatively captures the details of how it came about. The book has an immense value for future historians. Not all previous ISRO chairmen have documented their experiences as Rao has done here.   It is a valuable source of fascinating information in India’s development, an example that future ISRO chairmen should be encouraged to follow.

Mars Orbiter Mission

ISAC

Interview recorded at ISRO’s satellite Centre in Bangalore with Mars Orbiter Mission program director Dr Mylswamy Annadurai. This interview was recorded on 26th March 2014 after MOM was launched but before it arrived at Mars.

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SR

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