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Space Missions Amidst A Pandemic: Automation And The Private Sector’s Role – Analysis


To offset risks and disruptions, it should now become a priority for ISRO to pursue pre-launch automation with greater vigour.

By Kartik Bommakanti

The COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated a substantial revision in the timelines of space launch missions for space agencies and private operators across the world — with several missions rescheduled as the crisis remains fairly unabated. Automation or autonomous activity involves the predefined tasks given to machines to reduce the role of human intervention or interaction. There are simple and complex forms of automation. Three issues are worthy of consideration in this regard covering automation and autonomous activity as well as involvement of private sector in space missions. The first is pre-launch or preparatory elements involved that enable launches. The second is the post-launch automation. Automation in both segments of a space mission assumes considerable importance under current circumstances.

However, the impact of the pandemic on post-launch automation might not be as pronounced as in the case of pre-launch automation. There is a considerable amount of automated technological development and a longer history that has been effectively applied to the post-launch phase of space missions covering in-flight automation, spacecraft injections into designated orbits, signal relays based on human prompts and commands from mission control centers and so on. A final area where delays in launches can be mitigated as in cases such as the current pandemic is in missions that involve the private sector.

Firstly, the health emergency precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic will inevitably exert pressures for pre-launch automation. Although productive results in pre-launch automation will not be immediate, investment in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and in the sub-field of Machine Learning (ML) is crucial for the growth, development and health of space programmes across the world, including India. There are several reasons for AI-based and technology intensive solutions for enabling space launches. The massive backlog generated by the COVID-19 pandemic will delay the launch of scheduled missions as well as constrain, if not out rightly endanger the development of future missions.

Secondly, the investment in AI-based initiatives for generating and optimising launch preparation and readiness may consume financial resources, but so can labour-intensive launches. The latter could impose a cost via training, salaries, emoluments and benefits for employees deployed for preparing a launch. Within the discipline of AI, robotic technology will be very important in the pre-launch or preparatory phase for the start of a fresh mission. Robotic technology for the preparatory phase of missions will have to acquire greater investment focus for space agencies around the world including the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). There is in any case long a history of automatic and robotic instruments in space missions. Tasks that are deemed too labour-intensive, hazardous and financially prohibitive were and are performed by robotic or AI-intensive technology. Robotics come in two forms — the first involves complete automation and the second is tele-operated. There are already well-known uses of robotic technology in-orbit for space missions.

In the post-launch stage for space missions whether to the Moon, Mars or the Geosynchronous Orbit (GSO) there is already abundant experience and knowledge of automation in the post-launch phase of space missions. The National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) has used robotic arms for its now defunct shuttle for performing tasks with limited human interface for the retrieval and deployment of payloads to and from space. The Chinese for instance, have also tested and used robotic arms for in-orbit tasks. The Indian space agency too has considerable experience and proven capacities in the post-launch phase of missions. Although the list is exhausting even in the case of India, let us take two prominent examples. The ISRO’s Mangalyaan or the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) launched in 2013 extensively used automation that allowed spacecraft to restore contact with the ground segment even when there were communications interruptions that lasted a few minutes. For instance, during phases of mission the when the spacecraft’ battery was undergoing charging preventing the ISRO’ Earth station to telemetrically track the spacecraft, tracking was restored once the charging was completed due to automation. In addition, communications antenna of the MOM was pointed away from the Earth at times during the mission which disrupted contact with the agency’s Earth station, but automation enabled revival of contact.

There are boundless examples of this kind demonstrating ISRO’s experience in post-launch automation in long distance space missions. However, and finally, beyond automation, despite the disruptive consequences for space agencies and programmes around the world caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are indications that some space operators are moving ahead with new space launch missions under the private sector that are less labour-intensive and follow strict social distancing requirements and guidelines.

Recently, for instance, the commander of the 45th space wing of the newly established United States Space Force (USSF) recently declared that while GPS satellites such as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) geared for meeting an important space-based military communications needs and deployed in Geosynchronous Orbit (GSO), they are labour-intensive, compelling the USSF to reschedule the launch of its AEHF satellite to June, when the pandemic is expected to abate, the USSF, nevertheless, is proceeding to launch the Elon Musk SpaceX-owned Starlink satellites to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The latter is less labour intensive largely because it is a private sector driven enterprise that does not involve government employees as is the case with the launch of the AEHF-6 spacecraft requiring around 300 personnel. An estimated 200 employees or less are required for the of the Starlink satellite launch due to happen on 23 April, 2020. To be sure, the complexity of the mission, which involves injecting broadband internet satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) might not be technically daunting, but it does raise possibilities for completing a limited set of missions, despite the ongoing pandemic. At first glance this development might not seem very consequential, however, the involvement of the private sector in launching spacecraft in some cases can limit and mitigate burden on public sector driven launch missions and provides flexibility. It also helps ameliorate backlogs for space launches and meet customer demand.

On the other hand, countries such as India are constrained in this regard in preparing launches currently due to the pandemic where role of the private sector is more limited or plays no direct role in launching satellites. To be sure, as the prospective Starlink launch reveals, the American private sector is not significantly more proficient than the Indian space agency in pre-launch automation per se, however, the extensive involvement of the private sector’ in launching spacecraft enables it to proceed with missions amidst the current pandemic. Either the Indian private sector will have to be drawn in down the line or ISRO will have to create a similar capacity as SpaceX is doing with its impending Starlink launch to offset delays. Thus, if the former cannot, the latter must. For instance, ISRO will have to identify missions in the coming weeks and months and adapt itself in pursuing less laborious missions to limit delays and rescheduling, which as of today is not evident. There is no official statement to indicate how the Indian space agency proposes to clear the backlog it faces currently and will overcome in the coming weeks.

The recent indefinite postponement of the ISRO’ GISAT-1 is generally consistent with global trends when it comes to large satellite missions that involve substantial ground personnel making obvious why pre-launch automation is so consequential for the realisation of timely completion of space missions. However, ISRO will need to identify less labour-intensive missions that it can pursue despite the pandemic. Even in the absence of COVID-19 ISRO was embarked on a roadmap to expand missions both in complexity and numbers, which only underlines why it needs to develop and integrate automation technology in order at least to reduce if not out rightly dispense with human labour and intervention at its ground launch stations. Unlike India, countries such as the US enjoy the benefit of a private sector that can meet the requirements of some launch missions amidst a health emergency limiting the burden on a government driven space enterprise. As of now, the ISRO appears to be cautious in preparing new launches, if not out rightly overwhelmed.

Given the foregoing, to offset risks and disruptions, it should now become a priority for ISRO to pursue pre-launch automation with greater vigour. Although limited pre-launch automation does exist and applied for preparatory tasks by space agencies across the world and the ISRO, it is not extensively developed and used. In the absence of a pandemic as infectious as the current there would be far less incentive to act with urgency on technology related investments. If anything, COVID-19 may and should lend greater alacrity in pursuing opportunities and incentivising investment in the AI sub-fields of Machine Learning (ML) and robotics.

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ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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