India’s satellite launch capability: problems remain

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) saw the successful launch of its latest communications satellite, GSAT-10, on September 29.

There were the usual celebrations and claims of new records testifying to India’s growing space prowess, such as that GSAT-10, at 3400 kg, was the heaviest ISRO satellite so far. But those who follow space ventures know well, and the Indian public should realise too, that this triumph masks some serious weaknesses in the Indian space programme. Indeed, it was precisely these limitations that were glossed over, some in ignorance but by many deliberately, in the hyped media coverage and triumphalist official proclamations not so long ago over the announcement by the Prime Minister of an ISRO mission to Mars in 2013.

Some might argue with this perspective, and see it as a reflection of an unfortunate Indian tendency to bemoan the gloomier side of India’s development story, to see the cloud rather than the silver lining. In the present case, though, this article is an effort to counter the equally regrettable tendency of many in our country to go gaga over some achievement and gloss over major problems lurking under the surface. Will things ever get rectified if we don’t even acknowledge that a problem exists?Behind the GSAT-10 success lurk several chronic problems that continue to plague ISRO. India’s space scientists are undoubtedly doing their best to tackle these problems. But a more frank and public acceptance of the issues would help rather than hinder their cause, and might even prod the government to increase assistance and elicit more support from a public which otherwise believes none is needed.Three major problems confront India’s space programme today. First, that India is yet to acquire reliable heavy launch capability, as clearly evidenced by the underplayed fact that GSAT-10 was launched by the European Space Agency from the Kourou space centre in French Guiana in the north-east of the South American continent. Second, the grave shortage of Indian transponders and the consequent challenges for India’s communications and security needs. And third, the commercial and strategic threats these weaknesses represent for the medium term.Waiting for GSLV The continued absence of ISRO’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) is hurting the country’s space programme badly. ISRO has not succeeded in fully developing its indigenous cryogenic rocket engine to power the GSLV. On the occasional GSLV launches till now, ISRO has made do with Russian cryogenic engines but it has only left now.

The GSLV enables launch of heavy satellites or other payloads, and placing them at high altitudes of around 36,000km in circular 24-hour orbits synchronised with the earth’s rotation such that the satellites are stationary over India. Such positioning of satellites enables the continuous reception and transmission of signals from and to the surface that is required for television and telephone communications, surveillance and other similar applications. Lower and different orbits mean that satellites pass over a particular region only every once in a while, sometimes once in several days, thus limiting the applications they can be used for.

Depending on the payload, effective communications satellites would typically weigh around 2 to 4 tonnes, calling for a powerful rocket engine with adequate lift capability. If manned flights are to be attempted as ISRO plans, such capability is absolutely essential.

India’s efforts at developing the cryogenic first-stage engine stalled a decade and more ago due to restrictions imposed on Russian technology transfer under the US Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), on the assumption that heavy launch capability could also be used for missiles. It is a telling reflection of the realities of contemporary geo-politics that the unilateral US-imposed MTCR, ostensibly a measure by the US to restrict spread of missile capabilities, has become virtually an international architecture governing space launch technologies. Russia has been unable to resist the US pressure and, as is now widely acknowledged, the Indo-US nuclear deal has not succeeded in fully removing all barriers to transfer of so-called dual-use technologies.

In any case, India decided to develop the GSLV engine indigenously. And truth be told, the journey has been more difficult than was probably anticipated. A few failures in the past few years have further dampened enthusiasm and unfortunately also seem to have also heightened a fear of failure and an aversion to reasonable risk. ISRO and government officials have got accustomed to an orchestrated chorus of praise from a poorly informed media and public, tributes to Indian scientific and technological capability, and proclamations of India having arrived in a club of leading nations of the world. The two successive GSLV failures in 2010 should not make ISRO shrink into a shell, afraid of further setbacks. Instead, efforts to complete the development of the indigenous cryogenic engine and the GSLV3 re-designed launcher should be redoubled even if that means additional expenditure and some more embarrassment.

Virtue out of necessity Instead, ISRO has fallen back on repetitive launches of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), now a well-proven and reliable work-horse. It can launch only smaller satellites of around 1000kg or less and place them in near-earth orbits coming down to only around 800km above the earth. Such satellites are useful for remote sensing, mapping, weather monitoring etc, and several countries are now finding ISRO’s PSLV an inexpensive option for launching satellites with such payloads. However, the big money in commercial launches is in communications satellites, and high-quality surveillance too requires geostationary satellites.

PSLV’s reliability too is proving to be of commercial value but, given limitations of payload mass and orbital altitude, the returns too are limited. PSLV C-21, the 100th launch by ISRO this September watched by PM Manmohan Singh, launched the French earth observation SPOT-6 satellite weighing about 700kg and orbiting at around 832km going over any spot on earth about once every 26 days. But when India wanted to send up its latest communications satellite weighing 3,400kg, it had to hire the Ariane launcher at roughly Rs.750 crore or about double of what it would have cost on an Indian launcher. Absence of the GSLV means not only that India is spending extra money but, more importantly, that it is losing valuable opportunities for communications satellite launches, where the money is.

Some of the recent PSLV launches have been sub-optimal. ISRO used a PSLV with strap-on boosters for the Chandrayaan-1 launch, using a slingshot method where the payload vehicle is launched into space from a particular orbital position using momentum and gravitational forces to propel the craft. ISRO is planning to use the same sling-shot method to launch its Mars probe in 2013, but the craft is very small with provision only for very light payloads, meaning that not very significant scientific experiments can be done, and it will insert the craft into a highly elliptical orbit which brings it close to mars only infrequently and for short intervals. If ISRO had waited for GSVL as originally planned, the Mars mission would have been far more meaningful.

Making a virtue out of necessity may be all right, and the lay public might be impressed by boasts of having beaten China to Mars. But scientists and engineers, and commercial users of launch services, will know that India is still considerably behind the leaders in heavy launch capability, which separates the men from the boys.

Transponder crisis Partly due to not having the GSLV, and partly due to poor planning, India is facing a huge gap between the number of transponders available on its various satellites and the burgeoning demand.

GSAT-10 has 30 transponders for communications application. 12 high-power transponders are in the Ku-band which is crucial for Direct-to-Home (DTH) television and for numerous VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) operators who provide telephone and internet broadband services carrying data, voice and video communications. Users may also include banking and security organizations. 12 more transponders are in the C-band and 6 in the extended C-band, all used by public and private TV signal providers.

In all, India today has a total of 311 transponders of which 217 are Indian and 94 have been leased from foreign agencies. Under the government’s Satellite Communication (SATCOM) Policy, users are not permitted to directly buy or lease foreign transponders, which can only be procured by ISRO based on demand projection by India-based users. Many of India’s constellation of communications satellites are close to end of life which means that the number of transponders has to be continuously increased just to keep up with attenuation rates, not to mention new demand. ISRO’s transponder strength had reportedly come down to a mere 141 in the past 5 years or so, subsequently enhanced through some new launches and lease agreements. ISRO is of course very far behind its target of 500 transponders by 2012. Large-scale leasing of foreign transponders is expensive and undesirable from a strategic viewpoint as well as due to difficulties posed by positioning a large number of satellites in the few slots available in space for use by India. In fact, India is unable to fill the slots it has booked due to lack of launch capability and insufficient satellites, and is contemplating bringing in foreign satellites.

Globally over 6,000 transponders are said to be available, with a projected increase of around 30% projected over the next 5 years. India’s media, mobile telephony and internet boom are expected to experience a similar order of demand expansion, which ISRO has totally failed to meet. Opportunities are going abegging, revenues are being lost and a huge potential boost to the economy and to a variety of commercial and social services is being foregone due to lack of launch and satellite infrastructure. And one has not even discussed the defence-related demand.

This demand-supply has also opened the doors to short-cuts and the possible undesirable dealings as witnessed in the controversial deal struck by ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix with Dewas Corporation for transponders in the scarce S-band. Leasing-in of foreign transponders or satellites, outsourcing of launches, all raise the spectre of non-transparent dealings, crony capitalism and the like.

The sooner ISRO can crack the GSLV’s cryogenic engine problem, and get its act together on satellites and transponder capacity, the better. For India’s communications infrastructure, services, earnings from space technology and international prestige based on powerful rather than shallow capability.