Aryabhata, the first Indian satellite

Aryabhata, the first Indian artificial satellite, which was built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), was launched from Kapustin Yar, a Russian rocket launch and development site in Astrakhan Oblast, between Volgograd and Astrakhan, on April 19, 1977. India’s first unmanned satellite, which was assembled at Peenya, near Bangalore, was named by India’s first woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, after Aryabhata, the first of the major mathematician-astronomers from the classical age of Indian mathematics and Indian astronomy.

The historic launch was celebrated by the Reserve Bank of India and the satellite’s image appeared on the reverse of Indian two rupee banknotes between 1976 and 1997. Also, to commemorate the event, both India and Russia released commemorative stamps and first day covers.

Aryabhata, the first Indian satellite

The space launch vehicle used to send India’s first satellite (which weighed three hundred and sixty kilograms and was instrumented to explore conditions in Earth’s ionosphere) in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) was a Kosmos-3M launch vehicle, member of the Kosmos rocket family, a liquid-fuelled two-stage rocket, first launched in 1967 and with over four hundred and twenty successful launches to its name.

The launch came from an agreement (which allowed the USSR to use Indian ports for tracking ships and launching vessels, in return for launching Indian satellites) between India and the Soviet Union directed by Udupi Ramachandra Rao (March 10, 1932 – July 24, 2017), a space scientist and chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, and signed in 1972.

Built to conduct experiments in X-ray astronomy, aeronomic, and solar physics, the satellite’s 96-minute orbit had an apogee of six hundred and eleven kilometres and a perigee of five hundred and sixty eight kilometres, at an inclination of roughly fifty degrees. The space object, covered with solar cells, was a 26-sided polyhedron with a diameter of one and a half meter. The scientific instruments had to be switched off during the fifth day in orbit because of a failure in the satellite’s electrical power system. Useful information, nevertheless, was collected during the five days of operation. The satellite returned to the Earth’s atmosphere on February 11, 1992.

The Indian Space Research Organisation

The Indian Space Research Organisation or ISRO is the space agency of the Government of India headquartered in the city of Bengaluru. Its vision is to “harness space technology for national development while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration”. ISRO’s chief executive is a chairman, who is also chairman of the Indian government’s Space Commission and the secretary of the Department of Space.

With the live transmission of the 1964 Summer Olympics across the Pacific by the American Satellite Syncom 3, the first geostationary communication satellite launched in 1964 from Cape Canaveral, demonstrating the power of communication satellites, Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme, quickly recognized the benefits of space technologies for India.

Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was established by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of the Indian Government under the Department of Atomic Energy or DAE in 1962, with the urging of scientist Vikram Sarabhai recognizing the need in space research. INCOSPAR grew into ISRO in 1969 also under the DAE. In 1980, the Rohini series of satellites became the first space object to be placed in orbit by an Indian-made launch vehicle, the Satellite Launch Vehicle or SLV.

ISRO subsequently developed two other rockets: the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), an expendable medium-lift launch vehicle designed and operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation, for launching satellites into polar orbits, and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), an expendable launch system operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation, for placing satellites into geostationary orbits. These rockets have launched numerous communications satellites and Earth observation satellites (or Earth remote sensing satellite), satellites specifically designed for Earth observation from orbit, similar to spy satellites but intended for non-military uses such as environmental monitoring, meteorology, map-making…

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) operates through a countrywide network of centres. Sensors and payloads are developed at the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad. Satellites are designed, developed, assembled, and tested at the U R Rao Satellite Centre (formerly the ISRO Satellite Centre) in Bangalore. Launch vehicles are developed at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram. Launches take place at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota Island, near Chennai. The Master Control Facilities for geostationary satellite station keeping are located at Hassan and Bhopal. Reception and processing facilities for remote-sensing data are at the National Remote Sensing Centre in Hyderabad. ISRO’s commercial arm is Antrix Corporation, which has its headquarters in Bangalore.

Aryabhata, the first Indian satellite’s legal status

What are satellites? They are space object. The term Object in reference to outer space was first used in 1961 in General Assembly Resolution 1721 (XVI) titled International cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space to describe any object launched by States into outer space. Professor Bin Cheng, a world authority on International Air and Space Law, has noted that members of the COPUOS during negotiations over the space treaties treated spacecraft and space vehicles as synonymous terms. The Space Object can be considered as the conventional launcher, the reusable launcher, the satellite, the orbital station, the probe, the impactor, the space telescope…

The term “space object” is not precisely defined by the Onusian space treaties. Let’s note that the five outer space treaties use such phrases as “objects launched into outer space”, object placed “in orbit around the Earth”, “in orbit around or other trajectory to or around the Moon”, or “around other celestial bodies within the solar system, other than the Earth”. Some of the treaties refer also to “spacecraft”, or “landed or constructed on a celestial body”, “man-made space objects”, “space vehicle”, “supplies”, “equipment”, “installations”, “facilities” and “stations”.

Let’s remember that “A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose”, article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969. In addition, “Recourse may be had to supplementary means of interpretation, including the preparatory work of the treaty and the circumstances of its conclusion, in order to confirm the meaning resulting from the application of article 31, or to determine the meaning when the interpretation according to article 31: (a) leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure; or (b) leads to a result which is manifestly absurd or unreasonable”, article 32 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969.

Let’s recall that a space object causing damage triggers international third-party liability under the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (entered into force in September 1972). Article I (d) of which enounces that “the term space object includes component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof”. Its Article II adds that “A launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight”.

A space object requires, thanks to the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in September 1976), registration. Article II of which states that “When a space object is launched into Earth orbit or beyond, the launching State shall register the space object by means of an entry in an appropriate registry which it shall maintain. Each launching State shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the establishment of such a registry”.

Finally, the term space object effectively triggers application of much of both the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force in October 1967) and the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in December 1968). Article VII of the first declares that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”.

Article 5 of the latter states that “1. Each Contracting Party which receives information or discovers that a space object or its component parts has returned to Earth in territory under its jurisdiction or on the high seas or in any other place not under the jurisdiction of any State, shall notify the launching authority and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. 2. Each Contracting Party having jurisdiction over the territory on which a space object or its component parts has been discovered shall, upon the request of the launching authority and with assistance from that authority if requested, take such steps as it finds practicable to recover the object or component parts. 3. Upon request of the launching authority, objects launched into outer space or their component parts found beyond the territorial limits of the launching authority shall be returned to or held at the disposal of representatives of the launching authority, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”.

The Outer Space Treaty doesn’t really provide a definition for “object launched into outer space” other than an indication in Article VIII that it includes the “component parts” of the “object launched into outer space”. It states that “A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth. Such objects or component parts found beyond the limits of the State Party to the Treaty on whose registry they are carried shall be returned to that State Party, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”.

We can conclude by saying that Aryabhata was a space object.