In a major boost to the commercial launch service of Bharat’s four stage, reliable space workhorse, PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle), Maryland based commercial weather satellite enterprise, PlanetiQ, has signed a contract with the Bangalore based Antrix Corporation, the commercial arm of the Bharateeya space programme, for the launch of two weather watch satellites as piggyback payloads by means of PSLV. The two weather watch satellites—forming a part of the fleet of 12-18 satellites—weighing 10kg each, will feature a special sensor to collect weather data on a global scale. Chris McCormick, Chairman and CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of PlanetiQ said, “The stellar track record of the PSLV combined with over seven years satellite design life provides the reliability and data continuity not just desired but required by the operational weather forecast community.” On his part, AS Kiran Kumar, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) expressed optimism that the global launch market scene for small satellites and PlanetiQ’s keenness for the Bharateeya launcher may very well bring its remaining weather fleet also to the PSLV.
Significantly, the September 28th successful PSLV mission had for the first time orbitted four US origin satellites belonging to the operator, Spire Global as piggyback payloads on commercial terms. The launch of four identical US nano satellites with a total weight of 28kg was a part of the contract to launch nine US nano/micro satellites as a piggyback payload on-board the PSLV flights during 2015-16 timeframe.
It is ironical that USA which had imposed sanction on ISRO in early 1990s for its efforts to get the cryogenic propulsion technology from Russia, had to fall back on the services of PSLV for getting its lightweight spacecraft off the ground from the Bharateeya soil. As pointed out by Susmita Mohanty, chief of a space start up, Earth2Orbit, the US companies stand to benefit tremendously now that PSLV has been added to their portfolio of international options. Antrix, set up in 1992 to market Bharateeya space products and services to both the Bharateeya and global customers, has notched up revenue around Rs 18,600 million during 2014-15 and is aiming for Rs 20,000 million during 2015-16. Launch services account for a major share of Antrix’s revenue. PSLV has so far set a record of launching 51 satellites belonging to the customers from 20 countries on commercial terms. The superb reliability and flawless performance of PSLV has been acknowledged by the international customers who have used the services of the launch vehicle.
PSLV, which has suffered just a solitary partial failure, has launched a total of 84 satellites through thirty successful flights spanning the period between 1994 and 2015. The September 28 PSLV mission delivered a luggage weighing a total of 1631 kg into the intended orbits, thereby proving the robustness of this launch vehicle. The upcoming PSLV commercial mission planned for a take off before the end of 2015 will launch six satellites from Singapore. While the 500kg remote sensing satellite of the Singapore ST Electronics will be the main, frontline payload of this mission, six small satellites from Singapore University will go into orbit as piggy back payloads. Meanwhile, Antrix plans to launch 23 satellites from a number of countries including the 900 kg. German environmental satellite Enmap on-board the commercial flights of PSLV before the end of 2017.
The portfolio of Bharateeya commercial launch service offered by Antrix will be expanded with the deployment of the three stages Mark-II version of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-MKII) equipped with a home grown upper cryogenic engine stage once it enters operational phase. The GSLV-MKII, carrying an Bharateeya cryogenic engine stage, has already logged two successful flights. The operationalisation of GSLV-MKII, that could carry a satellite payload weighing up to 2.5 tonne into a geo-stationary transfer orbit, will help Bharat end its dependence on procured launch services—that comes at an enormous cost to the public exchequer—for getting its INSAT/GSAT spacecraft weighing up to 2.5 tonne off the ground. On the other hand, Bharat could earn a substantial foreign exchange by offering the services of GSLV-MKII on commercial terms to the international customers. Further into the future, the heavy lift GSLV-MKIII capable of lofting a 4 tonne class satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit—expected to become operational before the end of this decade—will become a part of the commercial launch service portfolio of Antrix.
One of the factors hindering the expansion of Bharat’s satellite launch business would be the limitations imposed on by the availability of a solitary launch complex—Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) in Sriharikota island on Bharat’s eastern coast—under the command of the Bharateeya space agency. Clearly, Bharat would need to build a second launch complex with a view to step up the frequency of satellite launch missions with quick turn-around time. China, which already operates three land locked launch centres, is now closer to commissioning its ultra modern coastal launch station at Wenchang in Hainan Island. Of course, ISRO has hinted at building a second launch centre. “If we are looking for more launches for commercial purposes, one of the issues we need to tackle is the capacity to build more and do launches in a given time,” says Kiran Kumar.
For making it big in the satellite launch business, ISRO would need to enhance its capability substantially for building and delivering launch vehicles with a vastly stepped up frequency to ensure quicker turnaround time for space missions. And to this end, ISRO is working on a strategy of encouraging Bharateeya industries to float consortiums to deliver satellites and launch vehicles in a ready to use conditions. Currently, about 500 Bharateeya industrial units, both in the private and public sectors, are actively participating in the Bharateeya space programme by supplying hardware and services for various ISRO projects.
The proposed industrial consortiums that would take up the challenge of supplying satellites and launching vehicles in a fully finished condition, would need to be supported by ancillary industries housed in dedicated parks or special economic zones and fine tuned to supply space qualified components and subsystems along with the requisite engineering services. Of course, ISRO would need to do a handholding to prepare the Bharateeya industry to take up the challenge of building fully integrated satellites and launch vehicles.
Meanwhile, as part of the Bharateeya space diplomacy initiated by the Bharateeya Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a dedicated satellite meant for the exclusive use of countries in the SAARC region is expected to be launched by 2016-end. This satellite, being designed and developed by ISRO to provide weather watch and communications services, is expected to be the harbinger of the Bharateeya “soft power” in this part of Asia. Moments after the June 30, 2014 successful mission of PSLV, while addressing the Bharateeya space scientists at the Sriharikota launch complex, Modi highlighted the need for Bharat to build and launch a satellite configured to meet the specific requirements of SAARC countries. He wanted this satellite to be Bharat’s gift to the neighbours.
In fact, Narendra Modi is trying out his own brand of space diplomacy that could ultimately provide momentum to the space business activities of Antrix. The SAARC satellite initiative has rightly been described as a brilliant master stroke by PM Modi aimed at earning the goodwill of the neighbouring countries. Going beyond the SAARC satellite exercise, Bharat should look at competing in the multimillion dollar global space market by leveraging the cost factor and its globally recognised expertise in space technology.
Radhakrishna Rao (The writer is a freelance columnist who writes on science tech and defence related issues)