PSLV and other Indian launch vehicles including the high performance Mark Two version of three stage Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-MKII) have been developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) with the funding from the Indian government. However, the affordable cost of human expertise in India and the innovative engineering strategy adopted by ISRO have contributed to the low cost of the Indian launch service. And the argument of the US space industry captains that India should price its launch services in conformity with the international market trend does not make sense. Perhaps there is hardly any other commercial space vehicle in operation elsewhere in the world which is similar in mission capability to PSLV.
…both the US and the European space industry, which dominate the global commercial satellite launch market, is no more operating a kind of launch service that PSLV is well equipped to provide.
An agency report featured in the Indian media sometime back had revealed that the nascent private space industrial enterprise of USA had expressed its serious concern over and severe opposition to what it described as the “large scale use of low cost, Indian commercial launch service for putting American satellites into orbit”.
Clearly and evidently, the reference was to the highly successful commercial launch service of the reliable Indian four stage space workhorse, PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle). But then, both the US and the European space industry, which dominate the global commercial satellite launch market, is no more operating a kind of launch service that PSLV is well equipped to provide.
For the current 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. As it is, the thrust of the global commercial launch service is now focussed on orbiting heavier class commercial communications satellites into geostationary transfer orbit—36,000-kms above the equator where a satellite appears stationary in relation to earth. Against this backdrop, the concern expressed by the resurgent US space industry over the forays made by PSLV in bagging the orders for launching light weight US satellites appears an exercise in shadow boxing. For the PSLV service caters to the low end segment of the launch service with a focus on delivering light weight satellites into near and mid earth orbits.
Captains of the US space industry, while testifying before a US Congressional Committee, had noted that the use of Indian commercial launch service for orbiting US made satellites cannot but be detrimental to 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 Holokauhai Pulham, Chief Executive Officer of Space Foundation. However, the allegation of subsidised Indian launch service centring round PSLV has never been substantiated with solid facts and figures.
…there is hardly any other commercial space vehicle in operation elsewhere in the world which is similar in mission capability to PSLV.
Even so, Eric Stallmer, President, Commercial Space Foundation, has stoutly opposed the moves to facilitate a government subsidised foreign launch company. Obviously, his reference was to the Antrix Corporation, the Bangalore based commercial arm of the Indian space programme, which has been promoting PSLV as a low cost launch vehicle to deliver light weight satellites into near and middle earth orbits. ”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”.
According to US Congressman Brian Babin, who is also the Chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space, “I have heard from a number of companies that build and operate small satellites that there isn’t enough capacity in the US market at a price they can afford to meet their needs. India has stepped in and offered to fill, in part, their demand and is launching smaller satellites on their PSLV vehicle. The administration has provided a number of export waivers on a case by case basis for these launches.”
It ironical that USA which had imposed sanction on ISRO in early 1990s for its efforts to get the cryogenic engine technology from Russia would now make use of the services of PSLV for getting its spacecraft off the ground.
Meanwhile, responding to the sentiments of the US space industry, US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said that it agreed with its Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) that the Indian launch service, controlled and operated by the Indian Government threatens to “distort the conditions of competition” in the launch service market.
Significantly, the Sept 2015 flight of PSLV which launched India’s dedicated astronomy research satellite Astrosat as a frontline payload also hurled into orbit six foreign satellites including four from USA as a piggy back payload. This was for the first time that the US made satellites were launched from the Indian soil. “Relationship our country is now harnessing and nourishing is the reason ISRO was able to launch American satellites,” noted Y.S. Choudhry, Minister of State for Science and Technology. The four identical Lemur nano satellites belonging to Spire Global Inc of San Francisco, USA were non visual remote sensing satellites meant for marine intelligence through vessel tracking. The launch of four identical US satellites with a total lift off mass of 28-kg.was a part of the contract to orbit nine US nano/micro satellites using PSLV services. It ironical that USA which had imposed sanction on ISRO in early 1990s for its efforts to get the cryogenic engine technology from Russia would now make use of the services of PSLV for getting its spacecraft off the ground.
Strict export control regulation in USA prevents the launch of US built satellites as well as third party satellites carrying 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 enterprises and research institutions along with the third party satellites carrying made in US components. There is a perception that TSA can be leveraged into a Commercial Satellite Launch Agreement(CSLA), as a progression of TSA, that will allow US commercial satellites and the third party satellites with the US made components to be launched from the Indian soil, thereby significantly opening up the nearly US$2-billion global space launch business for India.
India happens to be the sixth country in the world to have mastered this critical rocket (cryogenic) propulsion technology.
But then the real cause of worry for the US space industry is the clear cut plan of Antrix to expand the portfolio of Indian launch service by introducing the high performance GSLV Mark II and its upgraded avatar GSLV-MKIII in a phased manner. There is no denying the point that both these vehicles based on cryogenic propulsion system could pose a challenge to the US based commercial class space vehicles.
Incidentally, a cryogenic propulsion system is technologically a very complex system due to the use of highly volatile liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen at extremely low temperatures and associated thermal and structural challenges. No wonder, cryogenic propulsion technology continues to be the closely guarded preserve of the advanced space faring nations which are not willing to share the secrets of this technology.
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.
In fact, USA had made all out efforts to thwart the Indian efforts to develop the advanced cryogenic propulsion rocket stage. Way back in 1992 it had coerced Russia into dropping its commitment of transferring to India the sensitive cryogenic engine technology—considered a dual use system by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). In response, ISRO launched the Cryogenic Upper Stage Project (CUSP) in 1995 with a view to realize a home grown cryogenic engine stage.
In the immediate future, by boosting the launch capability of GSLV-MKII which has logged two successful flights, ISRO expects to attract customers for the commercial launch service of the vehicle with particular reference to medium weight category satellites.
For ISRO, which started the work on cryogenic engine from scratch, mastering the nuances of materials technology, operation of turbo pumps and turbines that operate at cryogenic temperatures along with the challenges involved in the handling of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen was really a tough and complicated exercise. Even so, ISRO succeeded in putting place a fully Indian cryogenic engine stage.US had also imposed sanction on ISRO In 1998 following the twin nuclear blasts by India.
By taking forward its expertise and experience in cryogenic propulsion system, ISRO has already covered much ground in developing the heavy lift GSLV-MKIII vehicle. The high thrust upper cryogenic engine stage of 630-tonne, three stage GSLV-MKIII is stuffed with 27-tonne of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Everything going as planned, the first full fledged orbital mission of GSLV-MKIII will take place by 2016-end. Incidentally, in December 2014, an experimental, sub-orbital flight of GSLV-MKIII was successfully accomplished. GSLV-MKIII has been identified as a vehicle of choice for the proposed Indian manned flight mission which is yet to receive clearance from the ruling dispensation in New Delhi.
In the immediate future, by boosting the launch capability of GSLV-MKII which has logged two successful flights, ISRO expects to attract customers for the commercial launch service of the vehicle with particular reference to medium weight category satellites . “We have had a flurry of inquiries from abroad for commercial launch of satellites. The successful flight of the GSLV D6 has proved the robust design of the Cryogenic Upper Stage (CUS) and the launch vehicle. It has given us the confidence to go ahead” said K.Sivan, Director of the Thiruvananthapuram based Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), the largest Indian space establishment.
The Dec.16, 2015 PSLV mission by successfully delivering into orbit six satellite payloads from Singapore on commercial terms has once again proven the robust multiple launch capability of the vehicle. With this launch PSLV has set the record of orbiting as many as fifty seven satellites of the international customers for a fee. The PSLV commercial service which has successfully orbited satellite payloads of customers from around twenty countries continues to attract an increasing number of customers.
The upcoming PSLV flight planned to take place by May end would launch as many as 22 satellites simultaneously. The successful accomplishment of this mission would help ISRO create a new launch record.
Since late 1990s, Antrix Corp, has been promoting PSLV as a cost efficient vehicle for orbiting satellites into a variety of orbits. 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 lion’s share of Antrix’s revenue.
In April 2008, PSLV had created a sort of history by launching as many as ten satellites in one go. In addition to its multiple launch capability, PSLV is well placed to carry out missions to low earth, sun-synchronous polar and geostationary transfer orbit. An augmented version of PSLV was deployed for launching India’s maiden lunar mission Chandrayaan-1 in 2008 and Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)Mangalyaan in 2013. PSLV which has suffered just a solitary partial failure has launched 90 satellites through thirty one successful flights during the period between 1994 and 2015.
The upcoming PSLV flight planned to take place by May end would launch as many as 22 satellites simultaneously. The successful accomplishment of this mission would help ISRO create a new launch record. Of course, US space agency NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) had scripted history by launching as many as 29 satellites at one go in 2013.
While the Indian cartography satellite Cartosat 2C will be the primary payloads, four small satellites and seventeen nano satellites will go into orbit as piggy back payloads. Eighteen of these satellites belong to international customers including those from USA, Germany, Canada and Indonesia. Interestingly, the nano satellite payload of this PSLV flight includes three quad-packs of four earth imaging technology demonstrator satellite each of Spaceflight of USA. And for the PSLV commercial launch service not even sky seems to be the limit.