Monday, April 28, 2008

Bigger rockets to help ISRO tap $3 bn global launch biz

The perfect launch of 10 satellites, two Indian and eight foreign, simultaneously by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle C-9 has catapulted the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) into a new orbit. The world record mission not only demonstrates capability to launch small satellites but also puts ISRO’s commercial arm, Rs 660-crore Antrix Corporation, in a competitive position to capture a portion of the over $3-billion global satellite launch business. But if ISRO seeks to tap this market aggressively, it will have to shift focus to launch bigger rockets and heavier satellites.

Satellite launch for applications spanning direct-to-home (DTH) services, global positioning systems (GPS), education, telecom, weather monitoring and others is increasing worldwide. But the launch costs are prohibitively-high. Here, ISRO’s satellite launch services at about 60-70% cheaper costs could provide a boost to India’s space programme. “Today, PSLV is one of the proven vehicles to carry satellites. We will offer more launch products in the global market,” Antrix Corp ED KR Sridhara Murthi told ET over phone from the Sriharikota rocket launch site.

However, the challenge will be to demonstrate capability to launch heavy satellites, weighing over four tonnes. Indian rocket scientists say that such capability will be available by 2009 when ISRO readies its heavier rocket GSLV Mark-III. “PSLV is good for small satellites. The GSLV rocket is capable of carrying 2 to 2.2-tonne satellite. The Mark III GSLV vehicle and future launch vehicles will help us capture 10-15% of the market,” adds Mr Murthi.

The cluster of satellites lifted by PSLV C-9 in its 13th mission included two Indian satellites, Cartosat-2A weighing 690 kg and a 83 kg mini satellite and eight nano satellites weighing 16 kg to 27 kg from Canada, Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. At present India has the capability of carrying small satellites of less than 100 kg to nearly 2.25 tonnes capacity, an area dominated by Russia, China, Ukraine and the European Space Agency.

Globally, the 720-tonne Ariane 5 rocket built by Arianespace of France can effectively put a five-tonne satellite into orbit. But the one way fare is a whopping $120 million. ``Rockets that can carry a very heavy payload will be in demand to put the next generation of super-sized satellites into space,’’ says an expert.

Other rockets capable of putting heavy satellites into space like Atlas V of America’s United Launch Alliance (ULA) can take up to eight tonnes into orbit, but are rarely available for non-US missions. Likewise, the Delta IV rocket built by the ULA is primarily for US military use. Most commercial satellites weigh between three tonnes and five tonnes and Ariane 5 can carry two into space at once.

Where India could score is the low cost of putting satellites into designated orbits. ``Launch market is a risky business requiring big investments. Countries around the world are looking for low launch cost options and this is where we could play,’’ says Mr Murthi. In the $250 billion global space market, launch vehicles account for two-thirds of the total cost. The remaining goes into building satellites and ground support for monitoring and maintaining them.

ISRO and Antrix Corp could potentially target all areas. Making rockets to lift heavier satellites successfully could provide the boost to go for a bigger share of this pie.

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