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Need for Speed: Why Rapid Space Launch Capability Is Important for India

Need for Speed: Why Rapid Space Launch Capability Is Important for India

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The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is set to launch its new geo-imaging satellite, called GISAT 1, (tentatively) at 5:43 pm on March 5. The satellite will be launched by a GSLV Mk II, ISRO’s medium-lift rocket, in the mission designated F10. The Mk II is capable of carrying a payload of up to five tonnes to a low-Earth orbit (LEO).

A more interesting launch, however, was set to take place on March 1 by a little-known American private space company. Astra Space, based in California, was readying to launch its Rocket 3.0 on a test flight before delaying it due to bad weather. The rocket was built as part of a competition conducted by the US Department of Defence’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. Under the competitions’s rules, competitors must successfully launch two rockets from two different locations in a short span of time.

The contest intends to demonstrate the sort of rapid launch capability that both civilian and military missions have always prized.

Space technology has come a long way since the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 in 1957. Our current era is typified by a space race driven by rapid innovation, and comprises three key trends.

First, the technology once found on large satellites the size of cars has today been significantly miniaturised. These satellites vary in size between a small refrigerator and a shoebox, and serve a variety of purposes, from Earth-imaging to communication.

The second trend follows from the first: the demand for small satellites has allowed start-ups to build launch vehicles and satellites at relatively low cost, creating a new ecosystem known as NewSpace.

Third, there is an emerging trend in the development of offensive space capabilities, where a country can destroy an adversary’s satellites using either ground-launched or co-orbital anti-satellite weapons.

These trends together provide ample reason for India to obtain rapid-launch capabilities. For example, consider the military utility of satellites. The Indian military depends heavily on satellites for communication and coordination as well as for surveillance missions and monitoring activities around its borders. So as a result of satellites’ centrality to India’s security, an adversary may find it useful to either disable or destroy them during a crisis or conflict.

To avoid severe disruption as a result, disabled or destroyed satellites must be replaced in the shortest time possible, if required from more than one location. This requires ISRO or another launch service provider to prepare rockets at very short notice – in the order of a week – to launch payloads for the military and place them in orbits at the military’s discretion.

Rapid-launch capabilities are useful for civilian use, too. During a natural disaster, for example, the ability to deploy satellites to monitor disaster-hit areas could be invaluable towards helping government bodies conduct search-and-rescue operations.

A missing ability

One prerequisite for rapid launch capability is for India to have multiple rockets capable of carrying payloads weighing 500 kg or less. The rocket must also be easy to operate and require a short turnaround time, operators must be able to coordinate ground control to conduct simultaneous launches from at least two different locations.

Currently, ISRO neither operates any rocket with a payload capacity of less than 500 kg (even to the LEO) nor has any rockets with a short turnaround; rockets able to lift 500 kg to higher orbits and still have short turnaround represent a more complex undertaking. ISRO currently operates three types of launchers: the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle with a payload capacity of 1.5 tonnes to the geosynchronous orbit, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) with a payload capacity of 5 tonnes to LEO, and different types of sounding rockets for research.

Being able to send a hundred small satellites in one go to space is good for business but, counterintuitively, it carries some disadvantages. Small satellites designed for specific purposes must be placed in their correct orbits to deliver optimal results. ISRO typically undertakes such missions as ‘ride-shares’: the small satellites piggyback on a mission paid for mostly by a single, much larger satellite. Its presence could compromise the precision with which smaller payloads on the same mission can be placed in various orbits because the launch operator typically prioritises the needs of the larger payloads. Axiomatically, another disadvantage with ride-sharing missions is that launching only small satellites is unlikely to be cost-effective.

To surmount these challenges, ISRO has designed the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), which can carry up to 500 kg to LEO. The rocket will be operated by a new government-owned company called NewSpace India Limited, with a lead time of as little as two weeks. This said, it is still unclear whether ISRO can launch payloads rapidly from multiple locations using this launcher although some reports suggest the rocket can be put together with a small team of people.

Overdue reform

Thus, it is essential that India harness its private sector, especially the space start-ups that have bloomed across the country. Many of their Chinese counterparts have already demonstrated that they can launch rockets in quick succession and deliver payloads to space at short notice.

Shortly after India tested its anti-satellite weapon in March 2019, the Government of India announced it would establish a new Defence Space Agency (DSA) to help develop space warfare capabilities. The DSA, together with the Defence Space Research Organisation, will require significant support from ISRO as well as private sector players to build an innovative and robust space-centric defence ecosystem.

India’s NewSpace start-ups can deliver systems catering to the military’s specific needs. But to do so, the government will need to rework India’s space policies. At the moment, the regulatory structure of India’s space policy places an enormous burden on ISRO to act as both operator and regulator. If this continues to be the case with programmes designed to support and enhance the private space market as well as sate the DSA’s demands, ISRO will likely become a bottleneck.

Additionally, rapid launches require especial manpower, hardware and, importantly, a stringent yet accommodative regulatory framework that will allow private players to contribute to India’s overall space security and defence capabilities while upholding international standards of safety and security.

Thus, a new space policy must separate ISRO’s regulatory and research functions to allow India’s overall space ecosystem to thrive. The Takshashila Institution (where the author works) has drafted one version recommending that an independent regulatory body called the Space Regulatory Authority of India be set up to provide licenses to separate components of the launch services, including launch services, satellite operators, etc. Only such a regulatory framework can ensure India’s space industry remains globally competitive while also setting standards for policymakers around the world.

Pranav R. Satyanath is a researcher at the Takshashila Institution. He works on nuclear and space policy issues. The views expressed here are his own. He is on Twitter @duke_notnukem.

Utkarsh Narain, a researcher at the Takshashila Institution, undertook research on the New Space policy.

Note: This article was updated at 5:45 pm on March 3, 2020, to update details of the SSLV.

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