In its largest commercial launch in terms of mass, ISRO will launch five British satellites today, June 10, from Sriharikota. It will be the agency’s fifth commercial launch. In the payload, there are three mini-satellites making up the Disaster Management Constellation, called DMC3, which will help in disaster management and response and for relaying quick images from afflicted areas. The other two are experimental satellites, one to study de-orbiting strategies using solar-sail technology and the other planned for remote sensing and as a technology demonstrator.
However, the commercial angle in such launches is often downplayed. ISRO formed its commercial and marketing wing, Antrix Corporation, in September 1992. It oversees the commercialization of technology that is available to ISRO in order to attract private players, encourage competition and as a result reduce the price of launch. In the US, private players like SpaceX and Orbital ATK have brought down the price-per-launch even as Russian and European launchers have become attractive for the versatility of services they provide. India is only breaking into the market and has a tough climb ahead.
Its first commercial launch was provided by Antrix in 1999 to two customers: DLR-Tubsat from Germany and KitSat 3 from South Korea. These were small satellites that piggybacked with larger Indian ones. It was not until 2007 that a commercial, foreign satellite made up the main payload for a PSLV launch, with the Italian Agile. This feat was followed up by the launch of the Israeli TecSAR in 2008, the French SPOT-6 in 2012, the British STRaND-1 in 2013 (although it flew alongside the Indo-French SARAL), and the SPOT-7 in 2014. In all between 1999 and 2014, Antrix has provided launches for 40 satellites from 19 countries, all on board the PSLV, to rake in Rs.464.25 crore (2015). And the company’s fledgling nature is proved when one considers the gross Rs.4,408 crore ISRO claims to have made in 1992-2014 through commercial channels (the remainder coming mostly from the leasing of transponders for telecom).
Anyway, the healthy pace of launches is kept up by the reliability of ISRO’s PSLV launch vehicle, which was ready in 1994 and was used for commercial launches as soon as 1999. The variety of payloads it has carried ranges from small cubesats to high-mass remote-sensing satellites into various low-Earth orbits. The success of the program has also spurred ISRO to work faster on advanced launch technologies like the heftier GSLV. Even so, delays in the development of GSLV are costing the nation money in more ways then forcing India to rely on more expensive alternatives like the European Ariane-V launch vehicle and postponing launch facilities for other telecommunication satellites. The hidden cost is that delays in making the GSLV reliable offset the progress that the PSLV has made for ISRO in catching up with the global $300-billion satellite-launching industry.
Right now, the commercial launch market has few players and there has been a growing eagerness to breach it. In August 2014, Arianespace, the company which operates the Ariane-V and other launch vehicles, claimed to hold about 60% of the commercial launch market (and 65% of Asia) with orders valued at $5.82 billion. SpaceX has been trying to enter the market, too – its heavy Falcon launchers are under development and could provide stiff competition at about $90 million a launch. Even Ariane-V, with a launch capability of 10.6 tons to the geostationary-transfer orbit, reduces costs by launching two telecommunications satellites in a single lift.
ISRO is still developing its GSLV series and the new LVM-3 category of heavy lift vehicles which boast of a 4-ton capacity to GTO. Before it can be marketed to commercial players, it will have to also similarly demonstrate reliability provided by the PSLV. As we await for India to take a larger share in the pie of the commercial space launch market, here’s wishing luck to the five satellites being launched today.
Pradeep Mohandas is a banker who follows his interest in space. He once had hopes of being part of the space fraternity in India.