Conquering Space

While we doff our hats to Isro’s amazing feat, we now need to go for the big bucks in the heavy satellites market

By   |  Published: 19th Feb 2017  2:00 amUpdated: 18th Feb 2017  10:28 pm
Space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launch a record 104 satellites, including India’s earth observation satellite on-board PSLV-C37/Cartosat2 Series from the spaceport of Sriharikota earlier this year. File photo: PTI

Early morning, last Wednesday, the country was on the threshold of a splendid achievement. The world’s eyes were fixed on the Sriharikota Space Centre where Isro’s scientists waited anxiously as their trusted workhorse — Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle PSLV-C37 — blasted off at 9:28 am.

In about 30 minutes thereafter, it was mission accomplished. The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) created history by successfully putting 104 satellites into the Earth’s orbit in a single mission.

No other country has even tried to hit a century in a single mission. The previous world record was held by Russia, which in 2014 rocketed 37 satellites in a single launch using a modified inter-continental ballistic missile.

Blasting off from the first launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, the PSLV-C37 first injected Cartosat-2 series satellite into orbit and then the remaining 103 nano satellites, including 96 from the US.

All Praise
This world record is obviously a cause for celebration for Isro and India. Words of praise came in from all quarters and the remarkable achievement drew the attention of the world.

“This day shall go down as a landmark in the history of our space programme. The nation is proud of this significant achievement, which has demonstrated, yet again, India’s increasing space capabilities,” said President Pranab Mukherjee.

The world media too was clear. “Wednesday’s launch was another success for the Indian Space Research Organization, which is rapidly gaining a reputation globally for its effective yet low-cost missions. India had already sent up dozens of satellites, including 20 in one launch last year,” wrote The Washington Post.

Among the satellites launched, three were Indian and the rest 101 were small foreign satellites. The nano satellites were launched as part of an arrangement between international customers and Antrix Corporation Ltd (Antrix), the commercial arm of Isro.

Cost-effective Option
The launch helped India make a splash in the billion dollar satellite launcher market. In fact, India is fast emerging as a significant player in the highly lucrative commercial space market, owing to its reliable yet low-cost alternative. Of late, even American companies are warming up to Isro.

Isro’s reputation started peaking in 2014 when it became the first Asian country to put a satellite into the orbit of Mars, and that too at a much lesser cost as compared with the US and Europe. India’s Mars mission cost around $70 million, while the US, which sent its own mission in the same year, spent ten times more at $671 million.

Though Isro is still considered the new kid on the block, with this launch, it has not just displayed its capabilities but also set an enviable benchmark for space powers.
Realising the potential of India’s space programme, the government is also actively encouraging it. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley gave the Department of Space a 23 per cent increase in the current Budget.

Eye on Venus & Mars
India’s first mission to Mars was in 2013. The second mission to Mars is tentatively slated for 2021-2022 and according to present plans, it may involve putting a robot on the surface of the Red Planet.

While the first was a purely Indian mission, the French space agency wants to collaborate in making the Mars rover for the second mission.

India’s maiden mission to Venus, though, is in all probability going to be a modest orbiter mission. Michael M Watkins, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Nasa, said a mission to Venus is very worthwhile as so little is understood about that planet and Nasa would definitely be willing to partner in India’s maiden voyage to Venus.

Taking this forward, Nasa and Isro have already initiated talks this month on jointly undertaking studies for using electrical propulsion for this mission.

Responsible Space Launch
Some experts suggest that small satellites are really not very useful and in a bid to earn some money, Isro is contributing significantly to the creation of space junk.

But Laura Grego, Senior Scientist, Global Security Program, Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, USA, says, “I think that these launches can be done responsibly and provide benefits to all people. Developing a culture of responsible space launch and operations is key as more and more countries become space-faring.”

Former chairman of Isro, Kasturirangan, also sees the big picture and says that “India has the capability of putting several satellites in a single launch and demonstrating that capability is certainly not bad as it adds to India’s credibility.”


Illustration by Chaitanya Krishna

The PSLV, used for this launch, has undertaken about 40 successful launches since 1994. But it can carry only satellites weighing up to 2,000 kg, which severely limits India’s capability to compete in the $300 billion global space market. This gap also means India has to depend on foreign space firms to launch its own heavy satellites.

Isro’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which aims to bridge this gap, hasn’t really hit the bull’s eye, and its repeated failures have brought it the tag of ‘naughty boy’ of Isro.

In over a decade, the programme has just had two successes — in January 2014, launching the GSLV-D5 which put Isro into a select club of nations that can launch heavy satellites and in September 2016, when it launched GSLV-MkII. The key cause for a low success rate is the inability to develop reliable cryogenic engines.

“When compared to other Asian space giants such as China and Japan, India has to achieve much more. Because of its failure in developing cryogenic engines, India is still not in a position to launch heavy satellites. India can undertake hardly one to two launch missions in one year, while China in 2011 undertook 19 rocket launches, thereby putting 21 satellites in space. This is helping them attract more international customers for commercial satellite launches,” wrote the Sunday Guardian.

Since the PSLV does not have enough power, Isro needs to get the GSLV quickly to the market. And for this, it needs to get cryogenic engines right. With the big bucks of space business beckoning, it’s time to get ready for the next big takeoff.

(With inputs from PTI)