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IDSA COMMENT

GSAT-10 is a success but ISRO needs to advance its Launch Capabilities

October 01, 2012

India’s GSAT-10 Communication Satellite was launched successfully on September 29, 2012 by the Ariane-5 vehicle from French Guiana. This 3400 kg satellite has been the heaviest Indian satellite that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has built so far. Expected to become fully operational by November 2012, the satellite has a life cycle of fifteen years.

As per ISRO’s press release,1 GSAT-10 has 30 Communication Transponders [12 in Ku-band, 12 in C-band and 6 in Extended C-Band]. It also has a Navigation payload “GAGAN”, which would provide GPS signals of improved accuracy (of better than 7 metres) to be used by the Airports Authority of India for civil aviation requirements. GSAT-10 is the second satellite in the INSAT/GSAT constellation with a GAGAN payload; the first was GSAT-8, launched in May 2011. This GSAT-10 mission number ‘101’ has a price tag of Rs. 750 core including the cost of the satellite, launching fee and insurance. The satellite, 9th in the ISRO’s present communication satellites fleet, is expected to boost VSAT services (phone and Internet broadband connections) and direct to home (DTH) broadcasting.

GSAT-10 is expected to replace the ageing INSAT-2E and INSAT-3B satellites. India currently offers 167 transponders to broadcasters, and has taken 95 foreign transponders on lease to meet the increasing domestic demand, thus clearly indicating that India is not able to sustain the increasing demands of the communication sector for transponder requirements. Transponder requirements are likely to increase manifold in the coming years both for commercial (television broadcasting) and social (weather services, disaster management and Search and Rescue missions) purposes.

GSAT-10’s successful launch should be welcomed but it is also important to analyse as to why ISRO is not able to cater for domestic requirements leave alone grabbing a slice of the pie in the growing international transponder market. Broadly speaking, ISRO has mastered the art of transponder making but lacks in the capacity to launch bigger communication satellites. Presently, its basic inadequacy is the lack of a cryogenic engine, which is essential for launching heavy satellites into space. India’s most successful rocket launcher, the PSLV, only allows the launch of satellites weighing approximately 2000 kg. It is actually the failure to develop a fully reliable GSLV launcher to place heavy satellites in the geostationary orbit that is restricting the rapid growth of India’s space prowess. India has been testing the GSLV since 2001. Out of seven launches till date, only two have been fully successful. One of the major reasons for the delay in India’s second moon mission (Chandrayaan-2) is the absence of a reliable GSLV. Further, the absence of a GSLV is also affecting India’s strategic preparedness because India cannot launch satellites required for strategic purposes from a foreign launch pad or atop a foreign rocket.

Ariane 5, the vehicle which successfully launched GAST-10, had actually carried a load of approximately 10,000 kg (two satellites were on board: the ASTRA-2F meant for Europe and Africa and GSAT-10). The capabilities of vehicles like Ariane-5 clearly demonstrates how far India is lagging in comparison with developed countries in this field. The core cryogenic stage of the Ariane-5 serves as its key propulsion system. Since the early 1980s India has been depending on the services of this launcher and till date 15 ISRO satellites have reached space by using this European launcher system. It has been reported that September 22 was the actual launch date for the GAST-10 but that the launch was delayed because of a small glitch found in the rocket system. Scientists were unable to account for an additional one gram in the upper part of the rocket (probably dust) and it was only after they became fully satisfied that the launch was cleared. This incident demonstrates the nature of professionalism modern day rocket science demands.

There is also a political backdrop for ISRO not possessing cryogenic technology today. In 1992, the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin was pressured by the then US administration not to transfer the technology to India. Also, there are some unanswered questions with regard to the 1994 Nambi Narayanan spy scandal in which an ISRO scientist was falsely implicated. He was working on the liquid propulsion system and had a role to play in the development of Cryogenic Propulsion systems. It is expected that by 2013, ISRO should be able to test its indigenous cryogenic engine by undertaking rocket launches.

If India has to make serious inroads into the international satellite launch market then it has a great deal to catch-up. As per one forecast “more than 950 satellites will be ordered between 2012 and 2021, creating $145 billion of revenues for manufacturers. At an average rate of 108 satellites launched every year over the same period, these will bring more than $52 billion to launch services providers and represent a total of 2,200 tons to lift into orbit.”2 It is important to note that the launch market would involve launching of satellites of various categories. It could involve launching satellites whose weight ranges from 100 kg or 10 kg or even less to as much as 12,000 kg, in different orbits. India’s limitations are not only in terms of the weight factor but also of launch capabilities. India manages only one or two rocket launches per year while countries such as China, Russia and the United States each undertakes more than 20 rocket launches per year. Under such circumstances it is important to debate the suggestion put forth by the Chairman of ISRO a few days back about the need for PSLV launches to follow a commercial route. Mastering cryogenic technology could take some more years. ISRO could start with a public-private partnership model and undertake more PSLV launches. Also, there is a need to develop more space ports keeping future requirements in mind. The success of GSAT-10 indicates that while ISRO can manufacture big satellites what it lacks is launch capability.