The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched its first foreign satellite in May 26, 1999. Since then, ISRO has launched 319 foreign satellites and become a major revenue winner for the Indian government.
By Kumar S
Though ISRO’s share in the global satellite launch market sits currently at just 2%, it has been able to carve out a tidy niche in the small satellite market space; over the past five years, ISRO has launched 279 satellites not weighing more than 445 kg.
Headquartered in Bengaluru, India’s space agency has been one of the best public sector institutions that India has ever produced and is now giving a run for money to many established satellite launch companies, worldwide.
ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix Corporation Ltd has lapped up close to INR 63 billion in revenues in the past three years; revenues were up 40% in the financial year 2018-19 (April-March) as against a year before period. It launched 239 satellites during this period, according to a report by India junior minister in-charge of atomic energy and space.
Since 2014, the Indian space agency has launched satellites from as many as 26 countries. Among the countries, the agency has had agreements with USA, United Kingdom, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Canada, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia and Algeria.
The Indian space agency completed its fiftieth flight in 2019 with the launch of nine commercial satellites from Israel, Italy Japan and USA. The satellite launcher – Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) carried over 52 tn into space out of which 17% belonged to customer satellites.
In 2017, ISRO launched 104 satellites in one go, significantly bettering Russia’s record of 37 satellites. One hundred one out of these were foreign satellites. Advocates argues that this is a demonstration of India’s technological superiority and its capabilities to effect bulk launches.
The price point which ISRO offers for such launches helps it make more competitive than the rest. A report by media portal pixr8.com suggests that the Indian agency charged an average of USD 3 million per satellite between 2013 and 2015. In contrast, to Elon Musk-owned SpaceX which charges around USD 60 million per satellite, which is 20 times more for a similar result.
ISRO’s rise to prominence has been a result of decades of hard work and gradual but steady progression. Named after a mathematician, India built its first satellite ‘Aryabhata’, which was launched by the Soviet Union on 19 April 1975. Within five years it launched ‘Rohini’ – first satellite to be placed in orbit by an Indian-made launch vehicle, SLV-3. ISRO subsequently developed two other rockets – the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) for launching satellites into polar orbits and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) for placing satellites into geostationary orbits.
India’s first moon mission ‘Chandrayaan’, launched in 2008 was a lunar impact probe which remained operational until August 2009. While the country launched its second moon mission – Chandrayaan 2 this year, the mission was cut short by the malfunctioning of a communications equipment. Though the lander Vikram crash-landed on the lunar surface, the orbiter is still operational.
SpaceNews reported 322 small satellites were lunched globally through 44 launches in 2018. The market grew by a compound annual growth rate of 23% between 2009 and 2018.
By 2030, around 17,000 small satellites are estimated to be launched according to a new market research by BIS Research. The market size will be worth USD 30 billion from USD 513 million in 2018.
According to a local media report, mindful of the growing market for the launch of small satellites, ISRO has developed a Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) or mini-PSLV whose maiden test flight is due in the first quarter of 2020.
Going forward, SSLVs will be built by ISRO’s new commercial arm – New Space India Ltd (NSIL), which is a Government of India undertaking, incorporated on March 6, 2019. The Department of Science (DoS) has administrative control over the newly formed entity to commercially exploit the research and development work of ISRO and other space institutes under DoS. Earlier, these functions were being carried out by Antrix.
The second demonstration test of SSLV has already been booked for carrying an American payload. The advantage with SSLVs is that they can be assembled in 3-5 days as against 30-40 days required for a normal size rocket and can be made at one-tenth of the cost of PSLV.
ISRO could likely in future outsource the manufacturing of PSLVs to private companies.
However, the possibility of private companies launching their own satellites is still a long way. The country first needs to have a Space Activities Bill which among other things proposes seeking a prior approval by private companies from the government for operating satellites in the space. The bill will also address liability if any, for damages caused by activities or objects in space.
The Final Frontier
The space agency has also started work on project ‘Gaganyaan’ where it plans to send humans into space by 2022. This is one of the most ambitious projects by the Indian government we have seen in our generation. The first unmanned test-flight of Gaganyaan mission is expected to take place in December 2020.
In addition, it will also be launching over ten satellites and sun mission – Aditya L1 by the end of Q2, 2020.