Book Review: ISRO’s Earth Observation Cameras

India’s Journey Towards Excellence In Building Earth Observation Cameras

India’s Journey Towards Excellence In Building Earth Observation Cameras

Title: India’s Journey Towards Excellence In Building Earth Observation Cameras


Author: Dr George Joseph

ISBN:  978-93-5206-998-9

As a late joiner to the space club, India’s space program was in “catch-up” mode for most of its early history.  Never the less, original technological innovation did take place. In this book, Dr George Joseph describes how the electro-optical sensors used on-board India’s Earth Observation satellites were designed, built and deployed. He knows because he was at the forefront leading this work during the 1970s and 1980s.

As with any account written by the those who are intimately involved, Dr Joseph brings a level intimate detail and authenticity that is not otherwise available.   His arrival at ISRO in 1973 was timely. He lead the team that built the imaging system (image intensifier and vidicon tube) for India’s first Earth Observation satellite, Bhaskara-1. In the 200 pages, the book traces ISRO’s deployments of new techniques and technology as the Indian Remote Sensing program (IRS) evolved during the 1980s. The quality and quantity of data captured increased as multispectral, stereoscopic, higher specification optics and digital technology was introduced.

ISRO’s history is littered with examples of imaginative solutions to overcome the deficit of resources.  Images of rocket nose cones transported on bikes or a bullock cart with rubber wheels for testing satellite antenna in a non-magnetic environment, have generated iconic images. They represent a lasting public perception of the ingenuity and frugality of the Indian space program. Dr Joseph describes another.  In 1973 when a dark room was not available, a kitchen in a residential apartment was converted in to one along with the solid work surface to an optical bench.

Most of the book is readable for anyone with an interest in this subject. Since,  Dr Joseph is a scientist, some technical terms such as “Modulation Transfer Function” and “scan mirror for off nadir viewing” are present. Although the book traces the evolution of imaging systems which was the author’s primary contribution during the early phase, it covers how those early techniques and technologies continue to support the 2008 Moon mission and the 2013 ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission.

Chapter 10 highlights another of ISRO’s contribution that many, even within India, do not appreciate – international collaboration. The US Landsat series of Earth Observation satellites was the premier supplier of Earth Observation data. During the 1980s, 1990s, and early 200s, problems with Landsat 5, 6 and 7 coincided with the time that ISRO’s EO constellation of  satellites matured. Despite the very different pedigree, ISRO EO data was sought by many nations to fill the gap left by Landsat. Chapter 10 looks at several examples of how data from ISRO’s satellites is used by Australia, Sweden, Italy USA, Brazil and Kuwait to help toward understanding and mitigating against the effects of climate change.

The book is fascinating resource not only detailing the evolution of a key asset of satellite imaging systems but the personal account of how that was achieved. An appendix with 5 sections at the end deals with some of the more technical and specialised areas such as Bhaskara TV Camera Failure Analysis, Supplementary Notes, Space based Electro-Optical Cameras of ISRO, Glossary and Memory Lane.  I found the Supplementary Notes and Memory Lane sections particularly interesting. They contain transcriptions of letters, notes and several B&W images of high quality capturing some of the key events from the time when the author was engaged with his ground breaking work.

This is an interesting read, even if you have no interest in ISRO per se. The description of space based imaging systems, by someone who built them, is sufficient justification for acquiring a copy.  How could the work be improved? This book has one of the better quality of post production that I have seen. Despite this however,  there are some minor typos that do not get in the way of comprehension but are a distraction. Something that copy editing or proofreading should have picked up. The other is my frequent complaint – absence of an index. The book is available on  paperback from Amazon but hardback only from the publisher in India It is incomprehensible that in 2016, an ebook is not ALWAYS made available  at time of publication. A sample of the book, the forward, is available on the author’s personal website.

Book Review – From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet: India’s Space Journey

RedplanetTitle: From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet: India’s Space Journey
Publisher: Harper Collins India
Author: ISRO
Chief Editor: P.V. Manoranjan Rao

This book is probably the most detailed and most comprehensive account of how the Indian Space Program was founded and has developed since 1963.   There is no single narrative that flows from the beginning to the end. Instead this is a compendium of  53 individual articles in 8 sections from 50 different contributors written at different times. This stand-alone chapter approach allows the reader to hop between sections of interest  in any order. The varying styles and the occasional repetition may distract but can also reinforce.

Many of the key individuals who played a central role in the development of the Indian Space program are no longer around, but many are and they have shared their first hand recollections in this pages. Professor UR Rao who lead the team that designed and built ISRO’s first satellite, Kiran Kumar helped develop high resolution imaging system from space, Yash Pal who was present at the start and helped realise Sarabhai’s vision of using space to drive social change and Professor Jacques Blamont who provided the payload for the first rocket launched on 21st November 1963 and sustained the Indo-French collaboration for many years.

This is probably the first book that comprehensively captures the range of ISRO achievements.  Although rockets and satellites get the limelight, the key foundations that enable those developments do not. For example section 6.1. Space and Industry Interface, emphasis the underlying infrastructure with the words “tool design and fabrication is a technology by itself”.  The same chapter details the ISRO’s extensive connections with private Indian industry that have contributed to ISRO’s success.

Although ISRO is a department of the government, several of the writers refer to the “ISRO Culture” as a differentiator that has driven its success. It is has multiple manifestations. The origins of ISRO (as INCOSPAR) and its one page constitution as drafted by Homi Bhabha provided for a streamlined decision making, putting scientists and engineers (rather than politicians and administrators) in charge; Sarabhai vision to engage  international partnership as an initial stepping stone; UR Rao initiated new purchasing processes to bypass government red-tape) to meet tight timelines when building India’s first satellite Aryabhata;  and thousands of bright, dedicated and competent ISRO employees who rolled up their sleeves and took on ambitious goals in the complete absence of infrastructure, resources and experience.

When faced with challenges of building launch vehicles, satellites and the ground infrastructure to support them, getting the job done had the priority. Record keeping for archives did not. ISRO has been particularly slow to recognise this loss for future generations. State secrecy is unnecessarily invoked to limit and prohibit publication. invoked  As happens around the world, the culture of state secrecy is used to hide incompetence or embarrassment rather than legitimate state secrets. Consequently, publications such as this become an important source of information that is not available elsewhere. Both the current and previous ISRO chairmen are to be commended in nurturing and making this book possible.

Bhabha and Sarabhai understood the importance of international collaboration and had the international connections and charisma to invoke engagement. Without the assistance of foreign nations, particularly, the USSR, USA and France India would probably not have its space program in the current form but a mere shadow of what it actually has today. All the contributions are from Indian contributors with the exception of  a special but short contribution from Jacques Blamont from France and an incidental interview transcript of an Arnold Frutkin interview as part of the NASA Oral history program from 2012. It is customary in any book review to identify some shortcomings.  Since international collaboration has been central to ISRO’s progress over the decades, there could have been more international representation. Certainly, the absence of a USSR/Russian contribution is conspicuous. This book would also have been an ideal place to capture more original images perhaps sourced from the private collections of the contributors.

One of Carl Sagan’s many quotes goes like this “In all the history of mankind, there will only one generation that will be first to explore the Solar System”. Here he highlights the chance nature of events that happen for the first time in human history and coincide with our time on earth. Abdul Kalam who played a key role in ISRO  developing India’s first rocket capable of placing a satellite in orbit (SLV-3) died in  July 2015. In January 2016  Vasant Gowariker  who among his many contributions helped develop ISRO’s solid propellent infrastructure. The publication of “From a Fishing Hamlet to the Red Planet: India’s Space Journey” is timely. It is a detailed account from the ever decreasing group of individual who were part of that journey.

Akatsuki – New arrival at Venus

With two active rovers on the surface of Mars and six satellites in orbit, the Human exploration of Mars continues as never before. Two more missions will be leaving Earth for Mars in early 2016. However, the space news of this week that has not received the due global attention is the arrival of the […]

[Continue reading…]

Public Talk – The Indian Space Program

I will be in Keighley, Yorkshire speaking about the Indian Space program operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation – ISRO. I will speak about the its Mars Orbiter mission  has been in Martian orbit  since September 2014. All onboard instruments are returning data and the spacecraft is in good health. Keighley is about 20 […]

[Continue reading…]

Mars – The new space race?

A fascinating day here at in Liverpool. Some of you asked for copies of the slides – now on here on slideshare. More about The British Interplanetary Society, Manchester and Liverpool’s role in the space race – here.

[Continue reading…]

Episode 72: Satish Dhawan Space Centre

Located about 80km from Chennai on India’s east coast, Satish Dhawan Space centre is used by ISRO to launch all of its satellites including those to the Moon and Mars. Also known as Sriharikota, it was established during the late 1960s but today it has a vehicle assembly building, two launch pads and a state of the art mission control centre

[Continue reading…]

Episode 71 – TATA Institute for Fundamental Research

The Indian Space Program was initiated by a brilliant nuclear physicist Homi Bhabha who pretty much immediately handed over the space program to Vikram Sarabhai. Bhabha himself pursued the goal of bringing institutionalised fundamental research to India. At the time he saw that as essential for the new emerging independent India.

[Continue reading…]

Images and video from the partial Solar Eclipse 20 March 2015

Some images and short videos of the eclipse recorded from northwest England during a mostly cloudy morning of 20th March 2015. I used a video camera piggy-backed on my driven Vixen 102mm telescope along with a Cannon 550D at the prime focus for a few stills.  A mylar filter was used most of the time […]

[Continue reading…]

Episode 70 – India’s Deep Space Network and ISRO Satellite Centre

India’s space program is now over half a century old. During this time its Infrastructure has evolved. This episode looks at the current communication capabilities used to support space vehicles during launch, in Earth orbit or on a interplanetary missions. ISRO has an extensive network of ground stations on the Indian mainland, off-shore and neighbouring countries […]

[Continue reading…]

ISRO’s updated website – an overview

On 21st December 2014 ISRO updated its website ( duplicated at  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 […]

[Continue reading…]