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ISRO’s next feat could be refueling satellites in orbit, making human space flights a possibility

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The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has already achieved marvels — from discovering water on the moon to launching 108 nano-satellites simultaneously during one flight. But, the country’s space agency is now eyeing the next significant step in space travel — human space flights.

This is completely true because ISRO has announced that its plan to develop a technology which enables two different space vehicles to latch onto each other and exchange materials while being in orbit. In technical terms, this process is known as spacecraft docking and berthing, reports TOI.

The Department of Space has awarded the space agency with a massive grant of ₹10 crores (approx $1.5 million) to develop this new technology. Presently, the space agency is planning to deploy this technology to refuel satellites and spacecrafts already in their orbit to give them a longer lifespan and reduce space debris — which could become a nuisance really soon. ISRO is also planning to employ this technique to replace damaged parts (i.e carry out repair jobs) on existing satellites, with the ultimate goal being human flights.

Continuing to talk about the same, ISRO’s Senior scientist T K Anuradha said,

The plan is to launch two small spacecraft to test the technology in space. India operates a huge constellation of satellites and this technology will allow ISRO to enhance their lives by refueling them. It’ll also reduce space debris.

With regards to the same, he has confirmed that the space agency has been engrossed in working on this mechanism since 2016. It has completed some ground simulations and will test the docking and berthing mechanism in real-life in the coming months. ISRO has been working on this project extensively because it doesn’t want to expend its satellites already in orbit around the Earth.

These satellites, ISRO describes, are decommissioned and put out of use because their fuel is completely used up. The payload of the satellites is working just fine and only needs to be refilled to maintain their existing functionality. The technology currently in works at ISRO’s Bengaluru Space Application Centre will enable them to expedite the life span of satellites – sometimes even multiple times.

Talking about the same, Former ISRO chairman U R Rao, current chairman of ISRO advisory committee, said,

This technology could be used to transport people to space stations — bring back old people and put in newer ones — or even send people in to replace equipment on spacecraft and so on.

The docking mechanism is also employed when spacecrafts are delivering humans to and from the International Space Station. The country is not a member of the ISS as of yet but plans on becoming one in the near future — no immediate plans for it. Currently, its pathway is riddled with several challenges which it needs to overcome before attempting to transfer living individuals to space.

ISRO will initially be required to perfect its docking and berthing mechanism with capabilities that allow two spacecrafts to find each other and remain in the same orbit. It will eventually also require the process to be automated, where most functions will be executed by robots. While the space agency is thinking of reusability in a different sense than Elon Musk, but it will also need to figure out how to slow down the spacecrafts so they can reach near and dock safely with each other.

While the space agency is thinking of reusability in a different sense than Elon Musk, but it will also need to figure out how to slow down the spacecrafts so they can reach near and dock safely with each other. It is currently working towards the flight of its initial launch vehicle, GSLV Mark III, which will not only prove ISRO’s might in the space industry but also carry humans to space in the near future.

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