How Kargil spurred India to design own GPS

Saturday, April 05, 2014

When Pakistani troops took positions in Kargil in 1999, one of the first things Indian military sought was GPS data for the region. The space-based navigation system maintained by the US government would have provided vital information, but the US denied it to India. A need for an indigenous satellite navigation system was felt earlier, but the Kargil experience made the nation realise its inevitability.

On Friday, the Indian Space Research Organisation took the nation closer to the goal, which it would achieve in less than two years. The result, the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) will be as good as any such space-based system, as India can keep a close watch of not just its boundaries, but up to 1,500km beyond that. It works on a combination of seven satellites which would ‘look’ at the region from different angles, and, in the process, helps calculate from relative data, real-time movement of objects by as less as 10m.

Isro launched the first of the satellites in the group, IRNSS-1A, in July last. “By mid-2015,” said Isro chairman K Radhakrishnan, “we will have all the seven in place.” The system will be functional by the beginning of 2016. Basic navigational services wouldn’t have to wait that long—they can take off with just four satellites in orbit, which will be this year. “When we have four satellites by the end of this year, we will have an operational system and then we can go and test its accuracy to validate it,” said K Radhakrishnan.

Three of the seven satellites will be in geostationary orbits and the other four in inclined geosynchronous orbits. From ground, the three geostationary satellites will appear at a fixed point in the sky. However, the four geosynchronous satellites moving in inclined orbits in pairs will appear to move in the figure of ‘8’ when ‘seen’ from ground. Apart from navigation, the system will help in precise time keeping, disaster management, fleet management and mapping.

“Geopolitical needs teach you that some countries can deny you the service in times of conflict. It’s also a way of arm twisting and a country should protect itself against that,” said S Ramakrishnan, director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram. This is the reasoning behind two types of services that IRNSS will be offering. The first is called Standard Positioning Service (SPS) which is for civilian use. This will have an accuracy of 20m, while the second is called Restricted Services (RS), which can detect movement of objects by less than 10m.

“Many weapon systems like guided missiles and bombs also use such navigation systems. An indigenous system allows the development of such capabilities in a reliable manner,” said Ramakrishnan. “There is also the need to have your own navigation system in the civilian and commercial domain since so many critical services and businesses depend on it. A system run by another country (like GPS) may be switched off in times of crisis leading to complete collapse of certain services.”

It will put India in the company of select nations which have their own positioning systems. While the US operates the Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia has its own GLONASS and European Union, Galileo. China is also in the process of building Beidou Navigation Satellite System (BDS).

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