You are here

India and the Satellite Launch Market

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • July 16, 2015

    The successful launch of the PSLV-C28/DMC3 on July 10, 2015 takes the number of satellites launched by India for foreign clients to 45. The July 10 launch was the 30th flight of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV); of these, 29 have been successful. This speaks volumes about the quality of this vehicle, which is essentially used for launching satellites that weigh less than two tonnes into Low Earth Orbit (between 300 and 800 km above the earth’s surface).

    On its 30th flight, the PSLV placed five satellites in orbit for Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), United Kingdom. The overall lift of mass of the mission was 1440 kg, the heaviest commercial mission ever undertaken by Antrix Corporation Limited, the commercial arm of ISRO which was established in 1992. Previously, in June 2014, the PSLV-C23 mission had carried satellites weighing 765 kg for foreign clients. All these satellites are placed in a Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO, approximately 600 km above the earth’s surface). In the past, ISRO has launched much heavier payloads into SSO. For example, in April 2012, PSLV C-19 placed in orbit India’s radar satellite RISAT-1, which weighed 1858 kg. From the commercial point of view, every kilogramme of weight adds to the cost of the launch, with a 1440 kg payload earning higher revenue than a 765 kg payload. The first satellite ever launched by the PSLV for a foreign client was for Germany in 1999. The German satellite weighed 45 kg. Now, Antrix has also bagged a contract to launch a 800 kg German satellite called Environmental Mapping and Analysis Program (EnMAP).

    Along with satellite launching services, Antrix also provides various other services on commercial terms such as satellite building, transponders for broadcasting and telecommunication purposes, remote sensing data and other support services. Among these, providing launching services is unique given that only ten countries in the world have rocket launching capabilities. Of these countries, the US, Russia, EU, Japan, China and India make their services available commercially. (Other countries like North and South Korea, Iran, etc. have only rudimentary launching capabilities). Private companies are also trying to make inroads into the satellite launch business. Presently, the US-based Space X is providing such services.

    The satellite launch business has two basic categories: launching satellites into LEO, with such satellites usually belonging to less than two tonnes weight category; and, launching three to five tonne satellites, normally designed for communications purposes, into the Geostationary Orbit (36,000 km above the earth’s surface).

    The following table presents the salient details of the 45 satellites launched by ISRO for foreign clients so far:

    Satellite Category Number of Satellites Remarks
    1 to 10k g (nano) 20 Multiple utility, University students to Military
    11 to 100 kg (micro) 13 Scientific inquiry
    101 to 500 kg (mini) 10 Remote sensing purposes
    501 to 1000 kg (medium) 02 Remote sensing/Weather

    Most of these satellites carried by ISRO to space were launched as an appendage to various Indian missions. The total of weight of the first 35 satellites launched by India is 2355.2 kg; taking all 45 satellites into account, this figure reaches 4560.2 kg. India’s latest two missions carried more than 2000 kg of weight, making them commercially viable. To earn decent revenue, India needs to increase dedicated commercial missions. It need not remain content with carrying nano and micro satellites. There is a need to device a business model to place various categories of satellites in LEO. However, it needs to be emphasised here that nano and micro satellites are becoming increasingly popular.

    Till date, India has launched satellites for a total of 19 countries. The global distribution of India’s clientele appears to be skewed, however. India has mainly launched satellites for European customers. A total of eight satellites have been launched for Asian states and one each for African and Latin American clients. India is proposing to launch a SAARC satellite in 2016, indicating that it is exploring the possibility of using satellite technology as a foreign policy tool. In the recent past, China has launched satellites for Pakistan and Sri Lanka, while Afghanistan has purchased a European satellite. India needs to expand its space footprint over Asia.

    At present, the global satellite launch market is entering an exciting phase. The entry of private players in particular is making competition stiffer. For many years, the space agencies of Russia, US and the European Union have been at the forefront of the space launch business. Space launches being a risky and expensive business, states have always been at the forefront of investment. Even the growth of the space industry has been possible mainly because of state support. Private enterprises like Boeing, Space X and others, also get considerable support from NASA, the US space agency. For India to make further inroads into the global launch industry, there are two immediate requirements: the design of the PSLV needs to be shared with the Indian private industry and, in future, commercial launches should be handled by them (ISRO already has plans to this effect); and India needs to develop more launching sites so that more launches in a year could be undertaken.

    During the year 2014 Russia, the US and China have been responsible for almost 80 per cent of global launch activity (both state-specific and commercial launches). In 2014, Russia launched 36 rockets carrying satellites, while the US and China had 23 and 16 rocket launches, respectively. India averages around three rocket launches per year (both in 2014 and 2013 India had carried out three launches). Today, many countries are keen to have their own satellites. India has a great track record with a proven launch capability and hence becomes a choice for these countries. Also, there are unconfirmed reports suggesting that India provides launch services at about 75 per cent of the price charged by the space agencies of other countries. Hence, getting business is not an issue. But the real challenge lies in developing the requisite infrastructure.

    During the last two decades China has shown astonishing progress in the space arena, although it has moved only slowly in the commercial launch services sector. Its first satellite launch for a foreign client occurred in 1985. Yet, it has launched only 46 foreign satellites so far. China has been using its launch expertise more for strategic and diplomatic (read energy and minerals) rather than commercial reasons. For instance, in South Asia, China has been helping Pakistan; and in Latin America and Africa, it has made inroads by assisting Venezuela and Nigeria.

    Further, it needs to be noted that China’s hands are tied when it comes to attracting European and US customers because of its uneven launch record. It has been providing launch services to foreign clients through the China Great Wall Industry Corp since the 1990s and uses the Long March 3 rocket for the purpose. During the early 1990s, some US firms were using Chinese launch services. There were some launch failures and particularly after the failure of the Long March 3B rocket, an enquiry was ordered. The enquiry led to evidence that a US-based company M/S Loral & Hughes had committed a serious export control violation; Great Wall Industry had received sensitive technology with military applications during the course of providing satellite launch services to Loral & Hughes. In 1998, the US placed a ban on US firms using Chinese launch services.1 The US also had suspicion that Great Wall Industry had supplied the Iranian military with dual-use components that could be used in the Iranian missile programme. Although the US had lifted the sanctions imposed upon the Great Wall Industry on June 19, 2008, an element of caution continues to hamper the use of Chinese space launch vehicles.

    Based on various reports about the performance of the global space industry during the last few years, it has been observed that broadly the US has around a 40 per cent share of the global launching services market (USD 2 to 2.4 billion per year), Europe accounts for 25 per cent, and Russia 20 per cent. Countries like China and India have very less share of the launching services market, two to three per cent or even less. Europe controls about 60 per cent of the market in the category of heavy satellite launches, thanks to the successful French enterprise Ariane Space. India also heavily depends on this agency to launch its communication satellites (one such launch costs about USD 85 to 90 million, Rs. 500 core). The entry of Space X is expected to change the profit calculus of this market.

    India is yet to make its Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) operational. Hence, it is likely to take some more years for India to develop and demonstrate expertise in launching heavy satellites. At present, entry into the heavy satellite launch market appears to be a distant dream for India.

    Euroconsult, a global consulting firm specializing in space markets, published a detailed forecast in 2014 for the coming decade. According to this forecast, 1,155 satellites could be built and launched through 2023. In the commercial space sector, the forecast anticipates a total of 350 satellite launches over the decade, with these satellites equally divided between the geostationary and lower altitude orbits.2 This means approximately 175 satellites are out for grabs for the launching industry in the LEO category. The following statistics present actual figures about a particular category of satellites launched (civil+military+commercial) in the last few years. In particular, the figures for the years 2013 and 2014 indicate that the market for small satellites could be much above the forecasted figure.

    Year Nano/micro 1 to 50 kg
    2009 26
    2010 25
    2011 20
    2012 36
    2013 92
    2014 158

    In recent years, many states as well as private players have started showing interest in developing Cubsats. This category of satellites weigh between one and 1.3 kg and their volume is exactly one litre (10 cm cube). They could be said to belong to the group of nanosats (1 to 10 kg) or Picosats (0.1 to 1 kg). Some research is also underway on another category of satellites called Femtosat (weighing 0.01 to 0.1 kg). Although the small category market is likely to grow, there is no separate launch vehicle available to launch these satellites. While initially many of these satellites could find applicability mainly in the military realm, simultaneously the commercial market is also likely to grow.

    In collaboration with private industry, agencies like NASA are trying to develop a low cost, reliable, on-demand, routine space access vehicle. Their broad idea is to develop a Nano-Micro Satellite Launch Vehicle (NMSLV) to carry satellites weighing approximately 20 kg to LEO.3 Presently, the concept of NMSLV is under research.

    China has not yet displayed much interest in cubsats.4 However, it is developing a new rocket named Kuaizhou (fast boat). This is a mobile, solid-fuel, space launch vehicle that can launch a 400 to 430 kg payload to approximately 500 km in SSO. Already two successful launches by this rocket launcher have taken place during the last two years.5 This rocket has the capability to launch satellites from a mobile platform. Investment in small satellite launchers take China closer to ideas like ‘launch on demand’, which has a larger strategic significance.

    India has been launching satellites for foreign clients for 15 years. Yet, it is likely to take some more time for it to establish itself as a serious player in the commercial launch market field. In the coming few years, India would have to concentrate on the market for the launch of less than 2 tonne category satellites into LEO. Today, India has a reliable technology available for launching such satellites. But there is no matching infrastructure to obtain larger commercial benefits. Present trend indicates that the market for launching of cube/nano/micro satellites is likely to surge. It is important that ISRO takes a conscious decision to develop a new rocket for launching small satellites. Any cost-benefit analysis in this regard needs to factor in the strategic utility of such a rocket launching system.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India