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ISRO Delivers Ten Satellites at a Go

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.
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  • April 30, 2008

    India’s Space Programme has been contributing a lot towards bestowing ‘Soft Power’ status to the country over the last couple of years. The success of the PSLV-C9 mission on April 28, 2008 is the latest in this regard. In this mission, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) succeeded in placing ten satellites in space by using a single booster. This is a record given that till date no other country has put a cumulative weight of approximately 825 kilograms spread over ten different satellites in a single attempt into space.

    ISRO’s most reliable workhorse, PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle), successfully delivered India’s cartographic satellite CARTOSAT 2A, the Indian Mini Satellite (IMS-1) and eight nano-satellites from abroad into outer space. The cartographic satellite launched is the third of the series and has a resolution of around 0.8 metres. The earlier two were CARTOSAT 1 and CARTOSAT 2 with resolutions of 2.5 and 1 metre, respectively. CARTOSAT-2A also carries advanced digital panchromatic cameras to give black and white pictures. Data generated by this satellite will be used for various cartographic applications, including urban and rural infrastructure development and management. The satellite would also provide useful information in land information systems and geographical information systems. It is expected that this satellite would form a pair with CARTOSAT 2 to enable more frequent revisits to areas under survey. Terrain mapping would become easier with this satellite, which would be offering stereoscopic imagery. CARTOSAT-2A imagery with a spatial resolution of about 80 centimetres matches the best in the world (the American satellite QuickBird is the world’s highest resolution commercial satellite and offers a resolution of 60 centimetres). This Indian satellite would now offer better imagery than the US IKONOS satellite, which has a resolution of one metre. The launch of IKONOS in 1999 was hailed by the New York Times as “one of the most significant developments in the history of the space age.”

    The other Indian satellite placed in orbit is IMS-1, India’s first micro satellite, which weighs 83 kilograms. This unit integrates many new technologies and has miniaturised subsystems onboard. Payloads aboard are meant for earth imaging, space science, atmospheric and ocean studies. India proposes to make available the data generated by this satellite to various research organisations, universities and institutions in developing countries free of cost. Understanding the financial and technological limitations of such institutions in having a state-of-the-art infrastructure for data reception, ISRO has made efforts to evolve easier methods of data reception. Data generated by IMS-1 will be transmitted to user terminals, which will constitute of a normal computer along with a radio frequency downlink and an antenna.

    The eight nano satellites that PSLV-C9 carried to space are CanX-2, Cute-1.7+APD II, Delfi C3, AAUSAT-II, COMPASS-1, SEEDS-2, CanX-6 and RUBIN-8. The overall weight of all these systems together is approximately 50 kilograms. These satellites belong to countries like Canada, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands and Japan. They were built to learn the art of fabricating satellites by academics and to test nano technologies for their applicability in satellites. Antrix Corporation, ISRO’s marketing agency, is charging these countries for the launch of these satellites.

    For ISRO, the mission was a technological challenge. Though this was the PSLV’s thirteenth flight, it was only its third in the ‘core-alone’ configuration. Incidentally, the earlier two core-alone configuration flights were undertaken for placing satellites in lower orbits, while this mission was the first flight into a polar orbit. The core-alone configuration involves sending the four-stage PSLV rocket without the booster-straps. In normal configuration, the PSLV has six booster motors around the first stage and is capable of placing payloads weighing up to 1,600 kg in polar orbit. PSLV C9 had a much reduced payload of around 825 kg; hence the launch configuration needed a change. Also, to put ten satellites at the right time in precise orbits one by one was a tricky task. The success of this launch also proves the merit of the ejection mechanism that ISRO has developed.

    The success of this mission should not be viewed in isolation. Over the last four decades, ISRO has made significant progress and has many successes to its credit. Many other challenging missions are in the offering. The much talked about moon mission, Chandrayan 1, is expected to get ‘space-borne’ within the next two to three months. Subsequently, in a year’s time, India also proposes to undertake its second moon mission in collaboration with Russia. For India, the moon has strategic relevance because of the presence of various minerals and Helium-3 on its surface, which could offer some solutions to the energy problems on earth.

    Immediately after the success of the PSLV C9 launch, ISRO also disclosed the broad outline of the 'Indian human space flight'. This would be a space vehicle carrying a crew of two to low earth orbit. The astronauts are expected to stay in space for a duration of seven days. The mission is planned to be launched in 2015 and could cost around Rs. 10,000 crore. The Union Cabinet is expected to approve this mission shortly.

    By launching ten satellites together, out of which eight were under commercial agreements, ISRO has showcased the trustworthiness of its launch capabilities to the world. On commercial count, ISRO’s success is significant. It is likely to bring in more business proposals. Already, during the last year, ISRO had successfully launched an Italian and an Israeli satellite under commercial agreements. In fact, since late 1990’s, India has taken piggy back payloads for a few countries onboard its own missions. Antrix Corporation also offers Technical consultancy and a wide variety of other services. It appears that India is now gradually emerging as a favourite destination for satellite launch services. India is projected to grab around 10 to 15 per cent market share of the global space bazaar in the years to come. Over the years, Antrix has achieved steady and significant progress in terms of financial performance. More than 75 per cent of its earnings are in foreign exchange and it has a sales turnover exceeding Rs. 3000 million. India has also constructed a special state-of-the-art launch pad capable of accommodating different rockets, which was inaugurated in 2005. Unlike launch pads operated by the United States and Europe, which typically are designed for a single type of rocket, ISRO's launch pad is designed to accommodate all of India's existing and planned launch vehicles. The flexibility of this pad (turnaround time is less) is likely to help Antrix in its efforts to win more commercial launch contracts in the near future.

    The success of PSLV C9 has demonstrated that ISRO’s space programme is robust with a sound technological base, and that it can match with the best in the world in many areas and has great strategic as well as commercial significance.