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The Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, is on its way to becoming a leader in space exploration — and they’re just getting started.

Host: Reid Reimers

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When you think of space exploration, NASA or the European Space Agency probably leap to mind.

But a lot of incredible missions come from other parts of the world, too. Like, Japan’s JAXA returned the first samples from an asteroid, and Russia’s Roscosmos has a flawless record delivering astronauts to the International Space Station.

One country you may not have thought of is India, but the Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, is on its way to becoming a leader in space exploration — and they’re just getting started. When it comes to launching spacecraft, ISRO has a great track record. Back in February, they made global headlines when a single Indian rocket launched 104 satellites — a new record.

Most were shoebox-sized cubesats, but the rocket successfully put them all on the right paths, one every few seconds — all while traveling at more than 27,000 kilometers per hour! Thanks to their growing reputation, these satellites came from all over the world, including the U. S., Switzerland, Israel, and Kazakhstan.

In 2008, ISRO also sent their first spacecraft to the Moon, where it did some basic science and proved their technology worked. But they truly arrived on the world space scene in 2014, when their Mars Orbiter Mission entered orbit around — you guessed it! — Mars. That put them in a tiny club of interplanetary nations alongside Russia, the U.

S., and the European Union. And on top of that, ISRO were the only ones to get into Mars orbit successfully on their first try! That by itself is a real accomplishment, but ISRO also had big plans to collaborate with NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft.

MAVEN showed up at Mars at about the same time, and both orbiters were tasked with studying the thin Martian atmosphere. While MAVEN’s orbit was designed to skim near the planet, the orbit for the ISRO mission could take the spacecraft more than 500 times farther away, allowing researchers to piece together a complete view of the atmosphere. The Mars Orbiter Mission even contained a key piece of technology NASA’s satellite didn’t have: a methane detector.

Here on Earth, methane is primarily created from life — like farting and burping cows — and with ISRO’s methane detector, researchers hoped to map the global distribution of the gas all around Mars. At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, because just getting to Mars is such a challenge, ISRO considered the whole mission a so-called “technology demonstration”.

So most of their efforts went into things like interplanetary communication… not scientific instruments. Some of their equipment worked great, but things probably didn’t turn out so well for the methane detector. As of 2016, the mission hadn’t found any methane in the Martian atmosphere.

But since other missions, like Curiosity, have found trace amounts of it, that could mean the ISRO orbiter just wasn’t sensitive enough, or that there was another issue. Now, ISRO is developing a much more capable Martian satellite, so they could learn a lot more in the 2020s. And the ESA and Roscosmos’s Trace Gas Orbiter will be investigating the methane situation in the meantime.

Still, ISRO’s first Mars mission was a success in a lot of way, and the organization is now ready for even more exploration. And until then, they’re also making major contributions to astronomy, with a space telescope called AstroSat that launched in 2015. You can think of AstroSat kind of like a mash-up of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

It’s way smaller than either of those, but can still accomplish something really cool: observing a single astronomical source in a whole bunch of wavelengths at once! “Astronomical source” is just fancy science-talk for something in space that emits, well, anything. In this case, AstroSat can find something we see in the sky and study it in visible, ultraviolet, and X-ray light — all at the same time! To do something like that with Hubble and Chandra would require tons of coordination, but AstroSat makes it happen for everything it looks at.

And earlier this year it contributed behind the scenes to a story you probably heard a lot about. This June, LIGO detected gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time caused by merging black holes, for only the third time. And a day after they detected them, an observatory in Hawaii saw a flash in the very same part of the sky.

At first, scientists thought this flash was probably the afterglow of the merging black holes — but it wasn’t. Follow-up observations from AstroSat helped determine that a distant gamma ray burst — probably from a supernova — had just happened to appear in the same part of the sky at almost the exact same time. Talk about astronomical odds, am I right?

Without AstroSat, it probably would have been a lot harder to figure out what that flash was. Squishing two space telescopes into one is just one example of how ISRO puts its own unique twist on space exploration, and they’re not slowing down anytime soon. In addition to their planned Mars mission, ISRO is getting ready to land on the Moon, and is working on missions to explore Venus, the Sun, and even Jupiter.

It’s an ambitious plan, but they’re off to a great start and, when it comes to exploring space, it’s always the more, the merrier! Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Space, and special thanks to our patrons on Patreon for making it happen! If you’d like to support the show, you can go to