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Explained: What India needs to develop a space station of its own

While India has demonstrated proficiency in satellite development, creating and maintaining a space station involves more advanced technology and expertise, says Girish Linganna

Explained What India needs to develop a space station of its own
First Published Oct 19, 2023, 9:00 AM IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently unveiled an ambitious plan for India’s space exploration during a high-level meeting. The vision includes establishing a space station by 2035 and sending an Indian astronaut to the Moon by 2040. This announcement came as part of a strategic roadmap for India’s future in space exploration, with the first human space mission -- the Gaganyaan Mission -- set to launch in 2025. 

The meeting, chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by top space agency officials, confirmed the country’s commitment to these goals. In light of recent achievements, such as the Chandrayaan-3 mission -- through which India made history by successfully landing a spacecraft in the south polar region of the Moon -- and the Aditya L1 mission to study the Sun, Prime Minister Modi has tasked the Department of Space with even more ambitious goals in future. 

However, building a space station calls for deploying massive resources in terms of cutting-edge technology and expertise to handle them. Despite India’s proven skills in satellite development, building and upkeep of a space station is a completely different ballgame altogether, involving advanced life-support systems, long-term structural durability and protection of astronauts from radiation. These technological areas are aspects that India will have to work on and improve significantly before the venture can materialize.

The International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) is a large spacecraft that orbits the Earth at an altitude of about 400 kilometres (250 miles). It is a home and a laboratory for astronauts and cosmonauts from different countries who live and work there. The ISS is also a unique place for scientific research and exploration of space.

The ISS is 356 feet (109 metres) end-to-end, which is almost the length of an American football field, including the end zones. It has a wingspan of 239 feet (73 metres), which is longer than the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380 and weighs about 990,000 pounds (450,000 kg), which is equivalent to the weight of 280 cars. 

The ISS has a pressurized volume of 35,491 cubic feet (1,005 cubic metres), which is larger than a six-bedroom house.

The distinction between astronauts and cosmonauts primarily boils down to where they are from and who trains them. Astronauts are individuals trained and certified by such space agencies as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), European Space Agency (ESA), Canadian Space Agency (CSA), or Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to work in space. On the other hand, cosmonauts are trained by the Russian Space Agency specifically for space missions. In China, they have their own astronauts, called taikonauts.

The ISS was built by five space agencies: NASA from the US, Roscosmos from Russia, JAXA from Japan, ESA from Europe and CSA from Canada. They worked together to design, assemble and launch the different parts of the station in space. 

The first part of the ISS, called Zarya, was launched in 1998. The station was completed in 2011, although new modules and experiments are still being added. The ISS is the ninth space station to be inhabited by humans and the largest artificial object in space. 

The previous eight space stations inhabited by humans before the ISS include:

1.      Salyut 1 (1971)

2.      Salyut 2 (1973)

3.      Skylab (1973-1974)

4.      Salyut 3 (1974)

5.      Salyut 4 (1974-1977)

6.      Salyut 5 (1976)

7.      Salyut 6 (1977-1982)

8.      Salyut 7 (1982-1986)

These space stations were launched and operated by various space agencies, including the Soviet Union and the United States. The ISS has been continuously inhabited since the early-2000s.

The ISS has several sections, called modules, which are connected by a long structure, called a truss. The modules provide living and working spaces for the crew, as well as equipment and systems for life support, communication, navigation, power generation and thermal control. The truss supports the large solar arrays that provide electricity to the station, as well as radiators that dissipate heat. The ISS also has robotic arms that can move objects and perform tasks outside the station, such as installing new components or repairing damaged ones. 

The ISS is usually occupied by six or seven crew members at a time, who stay there for about six months on average. The crew members come from different countries and cultures and speak different languages. They have to work together as a team to operate the station, conduct scientific experiments, maintain their health and fitness and cope with the challenges of living in space. The crew members also communicate with mission control centres on Earth which monitor and support their activities.

Diverse Research Fields

The ISS is a platform for scientific research in many fields -- such as astrobiology, astronomy, meteorology, physics and medicine. The station offers a microgravity environment that allows experiments that are not possible on Earth. For instance, researchers can study how plants, animals and human cells grow and behave in space; how fluids and materials behave without gravity; how fire burns differently in space; how cosmic rays affect living organisms; and how the human body adapts to long-term spaceflight. 

The ISS also offers a unique perspective of Earth and the universe, allowing observations of natural phenomena, such as weather patterns, climate change, auroras, eclipses and stars.

The ISS is also a test-bed for technologies and systems that are needed for future missions to the Moon and Mars. For instance, the station tests new spacecraft designs, propulsion systems, life-support systems, communication systems and robotic systems that could be used for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. The station also helps prepare astronauts for longer and more challenging missions by exposing them to the physical and psychological effects of living in space.

The ISS’s Swift Orbit Around Earth

The ISS orbits the Earth at an average speed of approximately 28,000 kilometres (17,500 miles) per hour. This incredible speed allows the ISS to complete an orbit around the Earth roughly every 90 minutes, which results in approximately 16 sunrises and sunsets each day for the astronauts on board.

Astronauts’ Health Concern

Astronauts on long-term missions aboard the ISS can experience a range of health deteriorations due to the unique space environment. Some of the key factors include:

1. Muscle Atrophy & Bone Density Loss: The microgravity environment of space can cause muscle and bone mass loss. Astronauts must exercise regularly to counteract this effect

2. Radiation Exposure: Astronauts are exposed to higher levels of cosmic radiation, which can increase the risk of cancer and other health issues in the long term

3. Cardiovascular Health: Prolonged space travel can affect cardiovascular health, including changes in blood pressure and fluid balance

4. Problems with Vision: Some astronauts experience vision problems due to changes in intracranial pressure during spaceflight

5. Psychological Effects: Isolation, confinement and the stress of space missions can impact mental health

6. Cosmic Radiation Hazards: Increased exposure to cosmic radiation can pose long-term health risks

7. Microbial Environment: The ISS’s closed environment can affect the microbiome of astronauts, impacting their immune systems

To mitigate these health issues, space agencies, such as NASA, have developed countermeasures, including exercise regimens, specialized diets and monitoring systems. Ongoing research is essential to understand and address the potential long-term health effects of space travel for astronauts on extended missions.

The author of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also the Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany

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