‘Chandrayaan-3 Showed What India is Capable of’


Sreedhara Panicker Somanath is the 10th Chair of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from TKM College of Engineering, Kollam, in 1985. Soon after, he started his stint in ISRO as team leader of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). After 10 years of service, he joined IISc to pursue his Master’s in Aerospace Engineering in 1994.

Somanath has worn many hats at ISRO, having overseen the successful launch of PSLV, GSLV Mk-III (LVM3), SSLV, RLV-TD landing and Gaganyaan-TV-D1, and several key technological missions. Under his leadership, in July 2023, ISRO launched Chandrayaan-3, which touched down on the lunar surface on 3 September 2023, making India the first country to reach the lunar south pole and the fourth to make a soft landing on the moon. Along with four others, he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from IISc this year. Somanath talks to CONNECT about ISRO’s upcoming missions, his days in the Institute, and his journey to the top of India’s space agency. The interview is lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Chandrayaan-3 lifting off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota (Photo courtesy: ISRO)


The Chandrayaan-3 rover, Pragyan, has sent its first updates. How are these findings going to help ISRO’s missions?

The whole experiment was about going to the moon, making a soft landing, and collecting the data, which has been accomplished. All the five instruments on board functioned well. They collected enough data. Now, scientists will delve deep into the data, uncovering patterns and missing links to bring out new science outcomes.

For example, the ChaSTE (Chandra’s Surface Thermophysical Experiment) probe, assigned to measure the thermo-physical properties of regolith on the moon, drilled 10 centimetres deep and measured the temperature profile. The result was surprising. The surface temperature was found to be near 20°C. On the other hand, the temperature at 10 centimetres depth was found to be around -30 °C. Within a small distance, we see that there is a huge temperature difference. This can reveal details about the properties of the moon’s surface. But to interpret it more specifically, we will have to study the data and then create models to find out more details. 

 In a similar way, we have measured the electron density at a short height from the surface. We found a lower concentration of electrons than previously thought. But why? We do not know yet. We will have to make sense of the data in the future.

We have also got data on seismic measurements (moonquakes). Whether these moonquakes are due to internal movements or some asteroid collision is a question yet to be resolved.

The presence of sulphur was another finding. A detailed examination of this data will give us information on the moon’s formation.

Chandrayaan-3 is a very inspiring story. It showed everyone what India is capable of.

Can you tell us about your days in IISc?

I had completed almost 10 years of service at ISRO when I joined IISc. I worked on the PSLV rocket and joined with that background and experience. Academic work and industry work are different. So, when I came to IISc, I was initially shocked by the academic demand. But being in IISc helped me in the long term. I could connect what I was learning at the Institute with my job at ISRO. I ensured that I studied papers and took up subjects that had a strong connection to my work.


I could connect what I was learning at IISc with my job at ISRO


For example, before coming to IISc, my exposure to mathematical modelling was minimal. At ISRO, I was more into systems engineering and design. After learning mathematical modelling at IISc in different domains, I could look at physical processes and find out the mathematical connections needed to solve a problem. This has increased my confidence, an important outcome from IISc for me.

I also ensured that I took subjects across departments. Although I was an aerospace engineering student, I took subjects offered by the Departments of Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science and Automation, and Mathematics. I made sure that my course work would help me to handle the complex problems of rocket-building. This helped me later in my career. I tried to make the best use of my time at IISc to grasp new knowledge. I would spend many late nights at SERC (Supercomputer Education and Research Centre), as most of my work was in computer modelling and simulation.

Somanath at an event in ISRO (Photo courtesy: ISRO)


Apart from burning the midnight candle, what were some of your favourite activities and spots in IISc?

The Gymkhana. I used to play badminton regularly in the evenings. After that, I would go to C Mess and have my dinner…


…Your favourite cuisine?

Whatever C Mess had (laughs). It was a good place, and I enjoyed the food there. In fact, my weight increased from 68 to 74 kg!

As I was a sponsored candidate, I was not staying in the hostel. We were put up in a bungalow near the swimming pool. We were away from the hustle and bustle of the regular hostels.


Could you tell us about Aditya-L1, the mission that seeks to understand the solarscape?

Solar observation and related science have been an ongoing research domain at ISRO. We have a solar observatory at Udaipur, which uses terrestrial-based solar observations, and our scientists have published several papers. They collaborate globally with other observatories as well.

Aditya-L1 is a unique satellite. Study of the sun is very important because we are looking at the effects of solar coronal emissions on [Earth’s] weather. The Sun is not a static object. It is very dynamic, and a lot of modelling is needed to understand it. Here, the goal is to look at Coronal Mass Ejections [CMEs – outbursts of materials from the Sun]. We need to understand these emissions and measure them up to distances at least three times the radius of the Sun.


Study of the sun is very important because we are looking at the effects of solar coronal emissions on [Earth’s] weather


Next, we need to look at the effects of emissions from solar particles travelling towards Earth. We have two instruments to study these particles. We have soft and hard X-ray detector instruments. We also have an instrument to measure the magnetic effect of such particles on the free space between the Sun and Earth.

All of this is to understand the mechanics of solar coronal emissions. The mission will help us model and predict space weather effects which are very prominent in the southern and northern regions [of Earth]. Space weather modified by severe CMEs can cause tripping of power grids or cause damage to satellites. Aditya-L1 has instruments to measure CME and its secondary effects on board. Thus, this mission is very unique.


When it comes to partnerships with private entities to carry out space missions, what are ISRO’s plans?

The emergence of private entities to take up space activities in all domains is very inspiring though they are at a nascent stage here in India.

Although there have been many industries with the capability to manufacture space systems and supply parts, not many were into systems engineering. Our goal today is to nurture and support industries and new entrepreneurs who can envision bigger [things]. We need companies to build rockets and satellites in India for the global market. Using currently available infrastructure in ISRO, we need to help them in case they need facilities, technology transfers and technical support.


The emergence of private entities to take up space activities in all domains is very inspiring


The first thing we needed was a policy to foster private entities and to allow them to get involved in space research and missions. Things were not easy before. Rocket building was not allowed in the private sector. Building a satellite was possible, but there were restrictions on owning a satellite and launching it from India because then it becomes an Indian entity, and the Indian government becomes responsible for it. Now, these are allowed after the space sector reforms and the new space policy of 2023. IN-SPACe [Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre] will authorise private entities to build rockets and satellites, and launch them from Sriharikota or any other Indian launch stations. We need to create policies and guidelines in other domains to promote business, namely space applications and delivery, communication infrastructure support, remote sensing data utilisation and NavIC [Navigation with Indian Constellation] services. Ventures like SatSure and MapmyIndia have come up on the application side very successfully.


When can we once again expect to hear “Saare Jahan Se Accha (India looks beautiful from space)”? What is the expected timeline to put humans up there under the Gaganyaan mission?

If everything goes well, it should happen in 2025. 

Somanath enjoying a light moment with colleagues in the control room (Photo courtesy: ISRO)


Recently, it was announced that a new space station will be built from India. Could you tell us more about this?

It is a vision that has been given by our Honourable Prime Minister.

After the success of Chandrayaan-3, you could see the euphoria it created. It captured everybody’s imagination, and everybody wanted to see more accomplishments such as a space station and human missions to the moon. Now, India is viewed as a country with the potential to succeed in such endeavours, thanks to robust government support.

The Prime Minister asked us to create a roadmap for the next 25 years.

He asked: “Could you put a man on the moon?” We said yes. “Can you build a space station?” We said yes. We created a roadmap and presented it to him. But for all this to happen, we need to do many more things in the coming days. 

We just accomplished Chandrayaan-3, but that’s not enough. We need to continuously carry out similar scientific missions over time, to the moon, Mars and Venus. Gaganyaan is a programme for sending Indian astronauts to space and bringing them back. For more than a one-time attempt, we need a long-term programme for sustained human space missions. For that, a space station is essential. They should be able to go up there, spend a long time, and carry out science experiments in zero-gravity conditions. So, we said that we could put up an Indian space station at a very low cost. It does not have to be initially manned; it can be operated by robots. We can send probes to bring back samples and carry out experiments. We are proposing it to be accomplished by 2035, which will be ultimately human rated.


Gaganyaan is a programme for sending Indian astronauts to space and bringing them back


For a manned moon mission, we have the target as the year 2040. For that, we must develop a new heavy lift rocket. Current rockets do not have enough payload capability, and are not capable of reaching the moon very fast.

We must also develop many new technologies. We have a list of technologies that need to be developed in the next 10 years, which will be pursued in different ISRO centres.

Celebrations at ISRO after Chandrayaan-3 landing (Photo courtesy: ISRO)


What led you to choose space research as a career?

I never thought about space research as a career. I never even imagined that I would ever become an engineer. It was just destiny. I was planning to pursue a BSc in mathematics or physics. Of course, I was interested in science and was a state topper in SSLC. But back then, there was no one to help channel my career.

I never wrote the IIT entrance exam, simply because my headmaster back then had suggested, as it would be impossible for me to get admission and tough to manage the fee payments. When many went for entrance exam coaching classes, I never did.


I never even imagined that I would ever become an engineer. It was just destiny


Someone got me an application form for engineering admission which was then based on pre-degree marks, and I applied. Thanks to the books I read, while in college, I became interested in space. I pursued my professors to teach courses on space technology, which were not offered at that time in my college. After graduating, I joined ISRO. The journey took off, without me deliberately planning for it.


Did you ever think of becoming an astronaut as a child?

No, never.



Never! I know that being an astronaut is a job with a different set of requirements. It has the glamour and associated high risks. Astronauts can do things defined to them and [things] that they are trained for. They are scientists, flight commanders and engineers. But my passion was to become an engineer with a creative capability to build all that is needed for the astronaut to function, such as rockets, space vehicles, and so on. A profession with a high level of creativity is a unique opportunity presented to anyone, and I wanted only that.

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