India must market for global satellite contracts (Special)

April 29th, 2008 - 4:40 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of ISRO
By R. Ramaseshan
The success of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Monday in putting into orbit 10 satellites with a single launch is certainly a commendable achievement marking as it does the second largest number of satellites launched at one go. Now it needs to push aggressively for more contracts in this niche market. Besides ISRO’s own two primary satellites, Cartosat-2A (690 kg) and IMS-1 (83 kg), Monday’s payload included seven nanosatellites (1-10 kg class) and one microsatellite (10-100 kg class) from foreign customers, which together weighed about 50 kg.

The highest number sent into orbit in one launch so far is 14 by the Russian launch vehicle DNEPR, a converted Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), in April 2007, which included one primary payload EgyptSat 1 weighing about 100 kg, six microsatellites and seven picosatellites (less than 1 kg). The failed launch of DNEPR in July 2006 was, in fact, carrying an even larger number - 18 small satellites besides the primary Belarus satellite Belka weighing 750 kg.

With this 10-pack launch ISRO has certainly made its mark in this emerging niche market of small research satellites. University students who are seeking inexpensive access to space are building such satellites with off-the shelf components. It must, however, be added that, in terms of technology, a multiple launch of small satellites is not a major feat.

Currently only Russia, with its large number of retired missiles converted into launch vehicles, and India, with its workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), seems to be offering the service of launching these small satellites.

The other big players in the commercial launch business, namely the US, France (Arianespace) and China, seem to be not so keen on this market segment. There may well be good reasons for this. Given the complications of tuning the launch software, on-board guidance and the autopilot to govern the multiple satellite launch, the paltry returns (at the rate of about $10,000/kg) may not seem attractive enough for the launch service provider.

With a huge number of such ongoing small satellite projects, Russia, with the availability of a large number of converted missiles, is in a position to log several such launches a year and corner a big share of the small satellite market. ISRO’s turnaround time for launches has to reduce further if it has to take advantage of even this small market.

The big commercial launch market, however, lies in the replacement satellites for the various satellite constellation such as Iridium and Globalstar now in orbit and in the heavy communication satellites weighing four tonnes and more.

As regards the former, while PSLV does have the capability to launch these medium-sized communication satellites, US export controls under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) require that necessary clearances be obtained from the State Department if ISRO has to launch US-made satellites or even satellites with US components.

Negotiations have been going on for over three years now under the Indo-US Space Working Group, created as part of the Indo-US High Technology Cooperation Group (HTCG), to arrive at an agreement that would enable ISRO to launch US-made satellites.

With respect to the four-tonne-class communication satellites, even if the Working Group were to arrive at such an arrangement, ISRO is not yet technologically ready to make its entry into this market, which is currently the stronghold of the big players.

ISRO’s GSLV-Mk III is designed to have such a launch capability. However, the indigenous 25 tonne thrust cryogenic engine C-25 for the rocket’s final stage is still on the drawing board, with the official optimistic date for its readiness being 2009-10. So, with its current launch capability and given the politico-strategic realities, ISRO will have to remain content with providing services for the small research satellites.

These satellites are usually of a kind not attracting US export controls and, even where they do, like in the case of the US experimental probe aboard the Indian lunar mission spacecraft Chandrayaan-1, the State Department has given the necessary clearances.

However, revenue from launching such satellites will be small and ISRO’s bid to enter the big commercial launch market is unlikely to be realised in the short-term. In the light of this, ISRO would do well to exploit its other major strengths, namely its world-class remote sensing technology - which has once again been demonstrated by the present launch - and satellite building.

ISRO should aggressively market its remote sensing products and bid for global contracts to fabricate satellites.

(R. Ramaseshan is a writer on space science. He can be reached at

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Posted in Sci-Tech |