ISRO Scripts History by Setting A New Launch Record
In a stunning demonstration of its awesome launch prowess, India’s trusted ,four stage space workhorse, PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) in its thirty sixth flight on June 22,2016 successfully placed into orbit as many as 20 satellites in one go. And in one quick sweep, this spectacular achievement helped ISRO script a history by setting a new record of launching twenty satellites in a single mission. This “space coup” has surpassed the earlier record of the launch of ten satellites launched simultaneously by a PSLV mission in April 2008. The June 22 mission, for which an augmented XL version of PSLV was deployed, was conspicuous for the precise launch of 20 satellites in less than thirty minutes of the vehicle taking off smoothly from the second launch pad of Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC),the Indian spaceport located about 100-kms to the north of Chennai. In a way, the successful space spectacular pulled off by PSLV while boosting the credibility and reputation of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) sky high, has heightened the confidence of international customers in the commercial launch service of PSLV.
This was perhaps one of the biggest launch campaigns ever carried out by ISRO. The total weight of the 20 satellites launched by this mission designated PSLV-C34 was 1288-kg.This largest ever Indian multiple satellite launch in a single mission trails the achievement of Russian Dnepr rocket which orbited 37 satellites in one go in 2014. Prior to that, National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) of USA had set the record of launching 29 satellites in a single mission.
According to ISRO, with this record breaking PSLV mission, the number of satellites delivered into orbit at the head of this four stage vehicle has touched 113.Of these, 39 are Indians and 74 belong to international customers of the PSLV launch service Moments after this successful space mission, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said ”Our space programme has time and again shown the transformative potential of science and technology in people’s lives”.
The main cargo of this PSLV flight—the fourteenth mission of the vehicle in its augmented XL version-was India’shigh performance earth observation satellite in Carotsat-2 series weighing 727.5-kg. The satellite was placed into a polar/
sun-synchronous orbit of 508-km inclined to an angle of 97.5 degree to the equator. The high resolution Cartosat-2 series satellite, on account of its advanced technological features, is capable of meeting some of the requirements of the Indian defence forces.
Incidentally, this multiple launch PSLV mission, described as “mammoth” also delivered into orbit two Indian made nano satellites named Sathyabamasat and Swayam as piggyback payloads. The 1.5-Sathyabamasat from Sathyabama University is designed to collect data on greenhouse gases. On the other hand, the 1- kg. Swayam satellite from the College of Engineering in Pune is meant to provide point to point messaging services to the HAM Radio community.
The seventeen co-passenger satellites of international customers lobbed into space by this PSLV mission on commercial terms are:
LapanA3 Indonesian earth observation micro satellite, weighing 120-kg, for monitoring land use, natural resources and environment.
Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Micro Satellite, a technology demonstrator space platform, jointly funded and managed by Defense Research and Development Canada (DRDC) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The mission objective of this satellite weighing 85-kg.is to collect and study automatic identification signals from low earth orbit.
GHGSat- D earth observation satellite with a lift off weight of 25.5-kg and built by Space Flight Laboratory of the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies is meant for measuring the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases
BIROS (Berlin Infrared Optical System) is a small German research satellite weighing 130-kg is aimed at remote sensing of high temperature events.
Sky Sat Gen 2-1, designed and built by Terra Bella, Google company is an earth imaging satellite weighing 110-kg and designed for capturing sub-meter resolution imagery and high definition video.
Dove satellites numbering twelve and each weighing 4.7-kg, built by Planet Labs of USA is designed for earth imaging,
As envisaged now, Cartosat-2 series satellite can very well be a major contributor to Indian military’s reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities. Like most other remote sensing satellites, Cartosat-2 series satellite is also a dual use system. Clearly and apparently , an earth observation satellite can be harnessed for both civilian applications and military uses. For remote sensing and reconnaissance are considered two phases of the same coin. Interestingly, the Cartosat-2 series satellite has an in-built capability to snap high resolution images of earth’s surface along with an ability to take videos which it can compress and send back to earth. It features a panchromatic camera and a high resolution multi spectral imaging system. The sub-millimetre resolution and a quicker revisit capability are among the advantageous features of this satellite. According to A.S.Kiran Kumar, Chairman, ISRO, vigorous efforts are under way to improve the spatial resolution and temporal features of the next generation Indian earth observation satellites.
In the civilian sector, the imageries sent down by Cartosat-2 series satellite will be useful for cartographic applications, urban and rural applications, coastal land use and regulation,utility management like road network monitoring and water distribution,creation of land use maps,precision study ,change detection to bring out geographical and man made features and various other Land Information System (LIS) and Geographic Information System (GIS) applications.
Meanwhile, ISRO is working towards refining the technique of boosting PSLV’s capability for launching multiple satellites into different orbital planes in a single mission smoothly and precisely. For instance, on June 22, fifty minutes after each satellite was placed into its pre determined orbit and ensuring that there is no chance of collision between the satellites, ISRO carried out a complex manoeuvre. This exercise involved the re-ignition of the fourth stage of the vehicle for five seconds followed by its shutting down for 50-minutes and re-ignition for another five seconds. ”This experiment was planned and executed to perfection. Now ISRO has the capability to launch satellites to multiple orbits, an ability that would attract several international customers,” said K.Sivan, Director of the Thiruvananthapuram based Vikaram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), the largest Indian space establishment which is also the lead centre for developing Indian launch vehicles.
An upcoming PSLV mission scheduled for sometime this year will put ISRO’s Scatsat-1satellite meant for weather forecasting and cyclone detection and an Algerian satellite in two different orbits. On Dec.16, 2015, after PSLV-C29 mission launched six satellites from Singapore , ISRO restarted the fourth stage engine of the vehicle for a few seconds. This was a part of the exercise meant to master the in orbit manoeuvres required to put multiple satellites into different orbits with a single vehicle. The multiple launch capability of PSLV, its excellent track record of orbiting satellites of international customers into the precise orbit and its versatility to deliver satellite payloads into different orbits have all gone to boost the commercial prospects of this vehicle in a big way.
An augmented XL version of PSLV was deployed for launching India’s maiden lunar mission Chandrayaan-1 in 2008 and India’s first interplanetary probe to Mars named Mangalyaan in 2013.PSLV entered the highly competitive, multi billion dollar global launch services market in May 1999 with the successful launch of two foreign satellites -110-kg.Kitsat-3 of the Republic of Korea and 45-kg. DLR -Tubsat of Germany- along with IRS-P4 Indian satellite as the primary payload. Not surprisingly then satellite operators, space agencies and research institutions from around 20 countries have over the years been using the commercial launch service of PSLV for getting their payloads delivered into orbit.
Affordable cost and reliability of service are certainly push factors attracting an increasing number of international customers to the commercial launch service of PSLV. Bangalore based Antrix Corporation, the commercial arm of the Indian space programme, has been promoting the commercial launch service of PSLV in a big way. With the demand for small satellites meant for a wide ranging end uses rapidly expanding, a booming market for PSLV is very much assured. ”We are finalizing contracts with at least 8-10 customers, PSLV is now rated the most reliable launch vehicle in the world. With the newly acquired capability of sending satellites into multiple orbits, we have a good case for attracting fresh business. In fact, small satellites market is booming and our Indian industry role here will be crucial,” observed S. Rakesh, Chairman and Managing Director of Antrix Corporation. Antrix, set up in 1992 to market Indian space products and services to both the Indian and global customers, has notched up a revenue around Rs.18,600-million during 2014-15 against Rs.1,11,30-million in 2010-11. The commercial satellite launch service accounts for a growing share of Antrix’s revenue.
All said and done, India would need to enhance the frequency of its space missions not only to meet its own requirements but also to attract an increasing number of international customers to the commercial launch service of PSLV and the next generation launch vehicles which will be offered for commercial missions once they attain operational status. ”We need to make more launches and we have to build more satellites. So we are trying to make that happen. We are reaching a stage where every month we are having a launch,” said Kiran Kumar. Of course, with a view to meet the growing needs for satellite resources for a variety of end uses, ISRO is planning to harness the potentials of the Indian industry to contribute to the process of satellite production in a big way. Such a strategy would help ISRO meet its need of one launch a month. A full decade back, ISRO had attempted to open up satellite production to private industrial entities. However, owing to a variety of factors, the idea could not take off and assume a practical shape.
It is in the fitness of things that ISRO is looking at the possibility of expanding its relationship with some of the Silicon Valley based firms --such as Planet Labs, Google Terra Bella and Spire Global which have made use of the commercial service of PSLV--to create a mechanism for the large scale production satellites in India by roping in industries in both the private and public sectors. Parallelly, ISRO is also hoping for the consortiums of Indian industries that would include heavy weights like HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited), Godrej and Boyce and L&T (Larsen and Toubro) taking off to build launch vehicles. Some time back Kiran Kumar had noted, “While we are enabling and enhancing the capacity for our own use, we also have the opportunity to make it commercial. Towards that we are discussing with industries on how to form a consortium or a mechanism where our capacity for launching may go upto 12-18 per year.”
With its sight set on the future, in May this year, ISRO had pulled off the successful landmark flight test of the Technology Demonstrator (TD) version of its Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) involving the use of a specially configured delta winged vehicle. This test was the first time that India built and launched a winged craft to attain a speed of Mach 5. After successfully surviving the exposure to the extremely high temperature environment of re-entry with the help of its thermal protection system, the vehicle glided into the pre determined landing spot in the Bay of Bengal. The Hypersonic Experimental Flight (HEF), as this test has been referred to as,is the first of a series of demonstration flights to validate technological elements going into a Two Stage to Orbit Reusable Space Vehicle that India expects to realize in about a decade or so. With a reusable space vehicle in place, it is possible to reduce the cost of accessing space by a substantial extent.
As a follow upto HEF, ISRO is planning for the test flight of the scramjet engine based on advanced air breathing propulsion system. The test platform for this experiment, expected to take place in the near future, is an Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV) which will be made up of the scramjet engine attached to the two stage solid fuel driven RH-560 sounding rocket. As envisaged now, the air breathing engine will be released at a height of 70-km and ignited during the coasting stage.
Earlier this year, the private space industrial enterprise of USA, which is now playing a crucial role in sustaining the US space exploration, had expressed its serious concern over the “large scale use of low cost, Indian commercial launch service for putting American satellites into orbit” Needless to point out, the target is the hugely popular commercial launch service of PSLV, which has hardly any rival in the global market for launching satellites. Perhaps it is the only one of its kind space vehicle in its class.
All said and done, the commercial space launch industry, in both USA and Europe, which dominates the global market for delivering commercial class satellites into orbit, has already exited the low end segment of the launch service that PSLV is capable of providing at a ”highly affordable cost.” Right at the moment, the focus of the European and American commercial launch service, is on providing lift off power for orbiting heavier class satellites into a higher orbital plane. A lion’s share of the market for launching commercial satellites is accounted for by the communications satellites in 2.5 -5-tonne class.
Against such a backdrop, the grievances of the US space industry over the inroads made by the PSLV in bagging the orders for launching light weight US satellites seems rather misplaced. Certainly, the segment of the commercial launch service that PSLV specializes in providing is no more attractive to the US space launch industry.
In the view of the private US space industry, the continuing dependence on Indian commercial launch service could exert negative impact on the future health of the private sector space industry in US. “I think the concern about Indian boosters is not so much the transfer of sensitive technology to a nation that is a fellow democracy but rather whether the Indian launchers are subsidised by the government to a degree that other market would be priced out of the market,” said Elliot HolokauhaiPulham, Chief Executive Officer of Space Foundation.
Eric Stallmer, President, Commercial Space Foundation, has on his part opposed the moves to facilitate “a government subsidised foreign launch company.” Clearly and apparently, the reference of Stallmer was to the Antrix Corporation. “Currently, the Indian launch vehicle PSLV has a sweet spot and has the capability of launching some of these satellites right now in a timely manner. We don’t want to see US launches going overseas by any means, whether it is to India ,Russia or whomever else. But right now, from the satellite, you know, producers and manufacturers they need to get their assets up in the sky as quick as possible,” notes Stallmer.
It is ironical that USA which had come out with sanction on ISRO in early 1990s for its endeavours to acquire the cryogenic engine technology from Russia was nudged to fall back on the services of PSLV for getting its spacecraft off the ground. Strictly monitored export control regulation in USA prevents the launch of US origin satellites as well as third party satellites featuring US made components on-board the non US launch vehicles. It was under a Technology Safeguard Agreement (TSA) that India and US had signed in 2009 that India was allowed to launch small, non commercial satellites owned by the US operators and research institutions along with the third party satellites carrying made in US components. ca.
In the ultimate analysis, the real cause for the concern displayed by the US space industry is the well defined strategy of Antrix aimed at expanding the portfolio of Indian launch service by chipping in GSLV Mark II and its upgraded avatar GSLV-MKIII in the years ahead. It is quite possible that both these vehicles based on cryogenic propulsion system could throw a serious challenge to the US based commercial space vehicles. As it is, a cryogenic propulsion system is technologically a very complex mechanism due to the use of highly volatile liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen at extremely low temperatures and associated thermal and structural challenges. India happens to be the sixth country in the world to have mastered this critical rocket propulsion technology. While GSLV MKII which has logged two successful flights can deliver a payload weighing upto 2.5 tonne into a geostationary transfer orbit, GSLV-MKIII is capable of orbiting 4-tonne plus satellite payload into a geostationary orbit.
As things stand now, GSLV-MKII can be deployed for offering commercial launch in the near future after one or two more flights. On the other hand, ISRO is preparing the ground for the full fledged maiden flight of GSLV-MKIII in December this year. Expectations are that GSLV-MKIII would be in a position to provide commercial launch service before the end of this decade. Addition of these two high performance launch vehicles to the portfolio of Indian commercial launch service currently dominated by PSLV would turn India into a “serious and noticeable “player capable of grabbing an appreciable share of the global launch service market.