The Indian Space Programme

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2015
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
PSLVs successful launch in September is yet another significant milestone in India’s space programme
Radhakrishna Rao
Wednesday, November 11, 2015

By all means, the Sept 28th flawless flight of the trusted four stage,Indian space workhorse, Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV),was an exciting and extraordinary space mission for a number of reasons. To begin with, the based astronomy observatory, Astrosat, which was ejected into a 650-km orbit as the main payload  by an augmented  XL version of PSLV, helped catapult India into the select galaxy of nations that have launched dedicated space telescopes to study celestial objects and cosmic phenomenon from close quarters. Second, for the first time, four nano satellites from US, which had in early 1990s had imposed sanction on the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for its efforts to get cryogenic propulsion system from Russia, were launched from the Indian soil. Significantly, five more US origin satellites are slated to be launched by PSLV flights under a contract bagged by Antrix Corporation, the Bangalore based commercial arm of the Indian space programme. Third, this is for the third time that a PSLV mission shot into orbit, an impressive luggage comprising as many as seven satellites including one each from Indonesia and Canada. The total takeoff weight of the seven satellites launched by this PSLV flight designated PSLV-C30 was 1631-kg.

Indeed, after its spectacular lift off from the first launch pad of the Indian space port, Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) in Sriharikota island in the  Bay of Bengal, the  PSLV-XL weighing 320- tonne and standing  45-metres tall  accomplished its mission of delivering seven satellites into their intended orbit with a high degree of  precision in less than 25 minutes. Incidentally, a PSLV with similar configuration was used for launching India’s maiden mission to moon in October 2008 and India’s first probe to Red Planet Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) in  November 2013.According to ISRO, the PSLV, considered a world class launch vehicle with a superb track record of flawless performance, has repeatedly proved its reliability and versatility by successfully launching satellites in different weight class into their designated orbits. As pointed out by ISRO, PSLV is capable of taking a 1750-kg.payload into sun synchronous polar orbit of 600-km and due to its unmatched  reliability it can be deployed for orbiting  a 1420-kg.satellite payload  into sub geostationary transfer orbit.

Incidentally, the PSLV powered by alternate liquid and solid propellant driven stages, was originally conceived of as a work horse vehicle for orbiting India’s one tonne class IRS series of earth observation satellites. However, with its launch capability being upgraded by ISRO in a phased manner, it was decided to harness the potentials of PSLV for launching satellites of international customers into a variety of orbits for a fee. With the successful accomplishment of the Sept.28 PSLV mission, India has set a record of launching as many as 51 satellites belonging to international customers from 20 countries. The versatile and trusted PSLV has also logged a record of launching as many as 84 satellites since it attained operational status. In 2008, PSLV had created a sort of history for most number of satellites placed in orbit with the launch of as many as ten satellites simultaneously.

This is the thirty first flight of PSLV which has so far logged thirty successful missions. Since its take off in the first half of 1990s, PSLV has suffered just a solitary partial failure. This also happens to be the tenth mission of PSLV in its augmented XL configuration. The six satellites of the international customers—76-kg. Lapan A2 of Indonesia,14-kg. NLS-14 from Canada and four identical LEMUR  satellites of USA weighing 28-kg were  successfully inserted into their intended orbits by this PSLV mission. Lapan-A2 is a micro satellite from National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN) of Indonesia. It is meant for providing maritime surveillance using Automatic Identification System (AIS) supporting Indonesian radio amateur communities  for disaster mitigation as well as carrying out  earth surveillance using video and digital communications.NLS-14 is a nano satellite from Space Flight Laboratory ,University of Toronto Institute for Advanced Studies (SFL-UTIAS) Canada. It is a maritime monitoring nano satellite using next generation automatic identification system. Four LEMUR Nano satellites from Spire Global Inc of San Francisco, USA are non visual, remote sensing satellites focusing primary on global maritime intelligence through vessel tracking via AIS and high fidelity weather forecasting using GPS radio occultation technology.

‘‘Astrosat is very special due to the choice of instruments it carries to study cosmic sources in multi wavelength,” explains A. S. Kiran Kumar, Chairman, ISRO. In terms of trail blazing contribution to the space based astrophysical research, Astrosat has been claimed to be the fourth of its kind after American-Europe Hubble Space Telescope(HST),Russia’s Spektr-R and Suzaku of Japan. This multi wavelength astronomy research satellite can be considered a miniature, scaled down version of HST which had created a sort of revolution in astrophysical research. Described as a landmark space science endeavour of India, Astrosat would open up a new, exciting  window for astrophysical research by simultaneously observing the universe in the visible, ultra violet and X-ray regions of the electro- magnetic spectrum.

In particular, Astrosat will study stars, quasars, pulsars, supernovae remnants, black holes and active galactic nuclei over a period of its active five years’ lifespan. In addition to ISRO, the other Indian research institutions-Mumbai based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Pune based Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) and Bangalore based Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) and Raman Research Institute (RRI)-had actively participated in the development of scientific payloads carried by Astrosat. Significantly, two of the payloads on-board Astrosat were developed in collaboration with the Canadian space agency and University of Leicester, United Kingdom(UK).

Since the dense atmospheric envelope of the planet earth does not allow x-rays and ultraviolet energy from distant cosmic objects to reach ground, a space based observatory like Astrosat could easily fill the void in the study cosmic objects. Given the uniqueness of Astrosat, it will enable Indian space scientists to carry out research in the frontier areas of high energy astrophysics. The vital significance of Astrosat lies in the fact that it would enable the simultaneous  multi- wavelength observation  of various cosmic phenomenon with a single space platform.  It took almost a decade for ISRO to develop a full fledged astronomy satellite with multiple research institutions supporting its development. The Rs.1780-million Astrosat draws on the legacy of Indian research satellite missions including Aryabhata, India’s first satellite launched at the head of a Soviet rocket way back in 1975.Indeed as pointed out by sources in ISRO, Astrosat will help in understanding the high energy processes in binary star systems containing neutron stars and black holes, estimate magnetic fields of neutron stars and study star birth regions and high energy processes in star systems lying beyond our galaxies. Data from Astrosat will shed light on the features and aspects of the universe that are far from well understood.

“There is an exciting possibility to address new investigations in astronomy using our own, largely indigenously built facility in space. A near continuous observational capability in space for astronomical studies, complementing the existing ground based facilities,”says P. Sreekumar, Director of IIA which had made a key contribution to the development of Astrosat payloads.

 Looking ahead, with the three stage, high performance Mark II version of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) which had its second successful flight with an Indian made cryogenic engine stage in August this year  all poised to join the PSLV for launching commercial payloads of international customers on commercial terms, ISRO would need to augment its infrastructure with a focus on boosting the frequency of its launches through a shortened turn around term. This implies that ISRO would need to set up a second launch centre besides encouraging Indian industries to float consortiums capable of delivering satellites and launch vehicles in a ready to use condition. And in a major boost to the Indian space programme, the Indian Government has given an in-principle clearance for the setting up of a third launch pad and assembly line at Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) in Sriharikota island at an estimated cost of Rs.10,000-million. This augmented launch infrastructure would support the proposed Indian manned flight and routine orbital missions of the heavy lift GSLV-MKIII. In the ultimate analysis, ISRO is planning to position SDSC as a commercially profitable launch centre of global standing. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen that India should transform itself into a key player in the US$300-billon global space market and upgrading the facilities at SDSC is a part of this vision.

A total of 23 satellites from nine countries have been lined up for launch atop PSLV on commercial terms over the next few years. Antrix Corporation has already signed agreements with nine countries including the European Union, Japan, Singapore and US.”The next immediate launch would be that of six satellites from Singapore. A PSLV rocket would carry one observation satellites along with five co-passengers,” said V.S. Hegde, Antrix Corporation Chairman and Managing Director. There are five satellites to be launched from US in the list including SkySat-Gen2-1 micro satellite.

For Antrix Corporation, the success of  GSLV-MKII signals a major step ahead in raking the moolah from the global space market for launching satellites in the weight class of 2-2-5-tonne.Further into the future,the operationalization of GSLV-MK III capable of placing a four tonne class satellites into the geostationary transfer orbit would help expand the scope of the Indian commercial satellite launch service.

However, as pointed out by Kiran Kumar,”the need of the hour is to increase our capacity”. For with a single operational vehicle in the form of PSLV and a solitary launch complex at Sriharikota island in the Bay of Bengal, ISRO will have tough time making it big in the international market for launching satellites of varying weight class in addition to meeting its own launch requirements. Of course, ISRO has hinted at building a second launch centre to expand its launch services. On a more practical plan, operating two launch centres also   makes for immense strategic sense. For instance, China which already operates three landlocked launch centres is now close to commissioning an ultra modern, coastal Satellite Launch Centre at Wenchang in Hainan island .This launch complex will be capable of handling heavy lift off launch vehicle and help boost China’s commercial launch service.  

 Of course, the successful development of the complex cryogenic engine technology, which is a zealously guarded preserve of a few advanced space faring nations, has helped the country  break the technological barriers to build bigger and more powerful launch vehicles. In fact, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) has imposed an embargo on the transfer of cryogenic engine technology as it is perceived to be a dual use system even though cryogenic propulsion is not preferred for a missile system. MTCR is an informal and voluntary association of countries which share the goal of non proliferation of unmanned delivery systems capable of launching weapons of mass destruction. The significance of cryogenic propulsion lies in the fact that it is capable of generating a higher level of thrust per unit in comparison to the non cryogenic propellants. 

 On another front, ISRO is gearing for the first full fledged inaugural  launch of the high performance three stage  GSLV-MK III with a lift off weight of 630-tonne by end 2016.  As it is, GSLV-MK III went through a sub-orbital experimental flight with a passive cryogenic engine stage in Dec.2014. This flight also carried a 3775-kg. Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment(CARE) to a height of 120-km before its splash down into the Bay of Bengal. This experiment was meant to evaluate the performance of the Indian crew module during its re-entry stage. For this is a critical phase of a manned flight. Incidentally, it is planned to deploy GSLV-MK III for India’s proposed manned flight which is yet to receive the green signal from the Indian Government. Operationalization of GSLV-MKIII will obviate the need for India to fall back on the commercial service of the European space transportation company Ariane space for launching satellites weighing upto 4-tonne.

And quite recently, the high thrust upper cryogenic engine stage of the vehicle  was subjected to the successful ground testing for a duration of 800 seconds at the ISRO Liquid Propulsion Centre at Mahendragiri in Tamilnadu. This cryogenic engine stage designated C25 operates on a gas generator cycle technique using extremely low  temperature propellants—liquid hydrogen at 20 Kelvin and liquid oxygen at 80 Kelvin. This cryogenic engine stage will be further subjected to high altitude tests prior to its final integration with the launch vehicle.         

With a view to boost the payload carrying capability of the Indian launch vehicles, ISRO is now developing a 2000-kN. semi cryogenic engine stage, in which costly and difficult to handle liquid hydrogen, is replaced by an eco-friendly and cheaper propellant grade kerosene which remains  stable at room temperature and is safer to handle. By replacing the core stage of the existing vehicles with a semi cryogenic stage, the launch capability could be enhanced by a substantial extent. The next generation launch vehicle capable of carrying a payload of 6-tonne into orbit would feature a cryogenic engine core stage. According to ISRO, the semi cryogenic engine stage will facilitate applications for future space missions including Reusable Space Vehicle (RLV),Unified Launch Vehicle (ULV) and vehicles for interplanetary missions. In particular, the semi cryogenic propulsion will be a key element of a heavy lift launch vehicle that India could deploy as and when it undertakes a sample return mission to moon. 

Meanwhile, ISRO is looking at the possibility of encouraging the Indian industries to float consortiums capable of delivering  launch vehicles in a ready to use condition “In about four years, we want to make sure that a complete industry assembled PSLV will be made available. Towards this, we started the process of interacting with companies .Our view is  that in four years, we need the industry to build,  assemble and  launch  PSLV,” said Kiran Kumar. He also revealed that the SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation) satellite which was mooted by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a  gift to the neighbours will  be launched by end 2016. While Sri Lanka has okayed the satellite configuration clearance from other member countries constitution SAARC is awaited. Clearly and apparently, the SAARC satellite stands out as a  tribute to the space diplomacy being assiduously pursued by Modi. In the years ahead a well-tuned space diplomacy could help boost the prospect of India’s commercial satellite launch business.  

Military Technology