An LVM3 lifts off from Srijarikota in February 2021. Photo: ISRO
- India’s largest rocket in operation, the LVM3, executed its first successful commercial mission on October 23 by launching multiple satellites for OneWeb into low-Earth orbit.
- The successful second operational flight – and fifth overall – of the LVM3 has proved to ISRO that the launch vehicle is reliable.
- The more reliable a launch vehicle is, the more attractive it will be for commercial missions, which is important because LVM3 has a greater revenue potential than the PSLV.
- Given this opportunity and what we need to do to capitalise on it, we confront a significant bottleneck: the rate of production of LVM3 rockets.
- ISRO has ordered 10 LVM3 vehicles from industry over the next five years, at a rate of production of three vehicles every two years, with a plan to increase this to five LVM3s.
- When the OneWeb launch was added to ISRO’s manifest in April 2022, it responded by postponing the Chandrayaan 3 mission – for want of an LVM3 rocket.
India’s largest rocket in operation – the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mk 3, now known as the Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (LVM3) – executed its first successful commercial mission, for NewSpace India, Ltd. (NSIL), technically for its customer OneWeb, on October 23, 2022.
NSIL is the new body tasked with handling ISRO’s commercial operations.
The event presented many firsts – as well as revealed important insights into the rocket’s future and the future of India’s more prominent missions-in-waiting.
For starters, in the launch vehicle’s second operational flight, it lifted the heaviest payload carried by an Indian launch vehicle: 5,796 kg. It was also the first time the LVM3 had been used to launch multiple satellites into low-Earth orbit.
The customer, OneWeb, was put in a tough spot when its deal with Russia, to launch its satellites on board the latter’s Soyuz rockets, fell through after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. OneWeb is headquartered in the UK, and as a result of the post-war sanctions had to call the deal off.
OneWeb had contracted Arianespace to provide launch services. However, Arianespace couldn’t offer its own workhorse Ariane V rocket because it was on the cusp of retirement while its successor, Ariane VI wasn’t yet flight-ready.
The other options available at the time were the Japanese H-IIA, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and India’s LVM3. Although OneWeb signed an agreement with SpaceX in March 2022, it also signed an agreement with NSIL for two launches on the LVM3 in April 2022.
India has four launch vehicles: PSLV, GSLV Mk 2, LVM3 and SSLV.
The first is the workhorse, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). This four-stage rocket was designed to launch remote-sensing satellites into a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). It can also be modified to launch satellites into geosynchronous-transfer and interplanetary-transfer orbits. It has had more than 50 launches thus far, and has a reputation for reliably launching both Indian and foreign satellites.
The second is the GSLV – designed to launch (relatively) lighter communications satellites into geosynchronous orbits. This is a three-stage launch vehicle. In a total of 14 launches, only eight have been successful so far. But to be fair, many of the failed missions involved the rockets using the Russia-made cryogenic engine for their third stages.
The ones using the India-made cryogenic engines – called GSLV Mk 2 – enjoyed more success, with six successful missions out of eight. (The second of these failures happened on August 12, 2021.)
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has 10 more GSLV launches in the works.
There is one more kind of GSLV that uses India-made cryogenic engines called the GSLV Mk 3 – this, as noted earlier, is now called the LVM3. This one has succeeded in all its five missions so far: one sub-orbital flight, two demonstration flights, and two operational flights.
ISRO is currently working on rating LVM3 for its Gaganyaan human spaceflight programme. Engineers are also upgrading and testing LVM3 components to work with a semi-cryogenic engine for the second stage, which will help the rocket lift heavier payloads to the same orbit.
The Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) is ISRO’s latest addition and it is yet to have its first successful flight. Its first test flight, on August 7, 2022, the SSLV stopped transmitting data around nine minutes after liftoff. Flight parameters indicated that a firing sequence that had to run for 20 seconds stopped after 0.1 seconds, leading to the failure.
Reliability and revenue
The successful second operational flight – and fifth overall – of the LVM3, which happened on October 23, has proved that the launch vehicle is reliable. The mission repeated history by flying a commercial payload on its second operational flight, just like the PSLV had in 1999. But the LVM3 has done it with a better track record. The PSLV had a failure and a partial failure in its first four launches and its first commercial mission didn’t have commercial satellites as its primary payload.
These feats taken together will have increased ISRO’s confidence in the rocket and its reliability. In spaceflight, ‘reliability’ means something performing as expected – in the case of LVM3, that means launching without failure and placing its payloads into the intended orbits.
The more ISRO flies the LVM3 in various missions, the more confident it will become that the vehicle is reliable. And the more reliable a launch vehicle is, the more attractive it will be for commercial missions – like the OneWeb contract.
With a score of 5/5, NSIL will be more optimistic about success in the second OneWeb launch, scheduled for February 2023 – and hopefully OneWeb will want to launch more missions on board the LVM3 in future. NSIL has already bagged Rs 1,000 crore for OneWeb’s first tranche of launches, and will also be able to advertise LVM3’s success with other potential customers, including companies and countries wanting to launch communication satellites and satellite constellations.
Note that the fundamental unit of revenue from commercial payload launches is the price per kilogram. LVM3 can carry a heavier payload than the PSLV in a single launch and so its revenue potential is proportionately higher.
Conclusion: More reliability means more revenue.
Production and priority
Given these opportunities and what we need to do to capitalise on them, we confront a significant bottleneck: the rate of production of LVM3 rockets. Supply chain issues, manufacturing, quality control, transportation to the assembly building, assembly and launch, and readying the launch pad for the next mission – all these tasks take a certain amount of time that can’t be reduced beyond a point. Instead, we will need to increase industrial capacity to support more launches if required.
On October 21, SpaceNews reported Radhakrishnan Durairaj, chairman and managing director of NSIL, as saying that ISRO was looking to increase the LVM3’s rate of production. According to him, ISRO has ordered 10 LVM3 vehicles from industry over the next five years, at a rate of production of three vehicles every two years. ISRO plans to increase this rate to four or five LVM3s in the same period.
ISRO currently manages the launch operations of missions of national importance (remote-sensing, communications and navigation-satellites missions) and scientific missions and commercial missions. In 2023, the organisation is slated to use LVM3 rockets for the second launch of 36 OneWeb satellites (a commercial mission), Chandrayaan 3 (a scientific mission) and the GSAT-20/CMS-03 communication satellite (a mission of national importance).
The CMS-03 and the Chandrayaan 3 launches were known for more than a year; the second OneWeb launch was added to the schedule only in April 2022. As noted in The Lunar Review #2, the addition caused ISRO to postpone Chandrayaan 3, signalling mixed-up priorities. Now, if another mission requires an LVM3 at this point, how will ISRO accommodate it? Will it pause new additions to the launch manifest or will it postpone existing missions?
Conclusion: More production capacity allows for better prioritisation.
Support and success
ISRO is presently basking in a bit of favourable attention from the country’s political class. As a result, it has been asked to work on a human spaceflight mission as well as on interplanetary missions on timelines that it has not been comfortable with. Then again, it’s clear that ISRO needs to be pushed outside its comfort zone to manage its various priorities. However, to meet these expectations, it needs support – in the form of funding, personnel and infrastructure.
This is a crucial decade for ISRO. Its commercial functions are being spun off into NSIL. Its private sector engagement functions are being spun off into the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (a.k.a. IN-SPACe). A consortium led by Larsen & Toubro is taking over the production of the PSLV.
There is also an overarching space policy document that identifies and defines the role of these constituents and how they need to work together to achieve different goals. (On the flip side, various iterations of this document exist and a ‘final form’ has yet to be presented in Parliament.)
ISRO has been trying to manage technical and management challenges – like those incurred by complex missions and like supporting new arms of the Department of Space, like NSIL, respectively. Against this background, more support from the government gives it a clear mandate to better respond to them, which in turn ensures mission success.
LVM3 has had a good start and an enviable track record. This author hopes it will take the first Indians into orbit in an Indian launch vehicle, and will continue this track record in its future missions for ISRO and NSIL.
Pradeep Mohandas is a technical writer based in Pune. He is a space enthusiast.