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No Rocket. No Space! Betting on launch vehicles will serve India well

By Chethan Kumar | Nov 11, 2022

Early on October 23rd, 2022, a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle-Mark3 (GSLV-Mk3), India’s heaviest rocket yet, entered the commercial market. It put into a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) 36 satellites for UK-based OneWeb.

Until this mission, Isro had launched 345 foreign satellites, all of them onboard its workhorse — Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) — that has an enviable reputation globally for its reliability and affordability. Even overall, a majority of the 200 missions carried out by Isro have used the PSLV.

On paper, the GSLV-Mk3 has a clean slate with all five missions so far having been successful. While its first mission was the Crew module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) in December 2014, it was only declared operational on July 22, 2019 when it launched Chandrayaan-2. In between these launches, it was used in two demonstration missions, in June 2017 and November 2018, that launched Gsat-19 and Gsat-29.

Sunday’s mission is a success that has announced India’s ability to launch heavier payloads to LEO, significantly enhancing its prospects of attracting commercial customers through Space PSU NewSpace India Limited (NSIL). This will also open up opportunities for launches to higher orbits albeit infrequent. There are strategic benefits of a successful Mk3. Launching an array of remote-sensing satellites for instance!

When I first reported that India was looking to use the Mk3 commercially, it was met with equal portions of scepticism and excitement. The scepticism was fair given that rocket science is tough and launch vehicles find a way of failing, whereas reliability is a critical ingredient for a successful commercial recipe.

Adding to concerns was Isro’s “track record with cryogenic technology”, which is not all that bad given the complexity involved. But it suffered because of people’s propensity to juxtapose it with the success rate of the PSLV. PS: Isro is so confident about PSLV that it has awarded a contract (through NSIL) to a consortium of HAL and L&T to build five rockets.

Today, the GSLV-Mk3 has made its commercial debut, marking a new era in the space programme. But Isro’s confidence in its heavy lifter isn’t confined to this. NSIL, which has given out the PSLV contracts, will next do the same for GSLV-Mk3. India will need to bet on rockets in order to become a competitive space player. As a spacefaring nation it can be justifiably proud of its reputation in providing third-party launch services, but not enhancing its capacity will pose the risk of losing this status. This may happen quicker than anticipated given massive developments in rocket technologies globally.

Sometime in the future, preferably sooner than later, the Mk3 must become a workhorse, a la, PSLV simply because of its ability to carry heavier payloads. Things are progressing in this direction and the timing couldn’t have been better: There’s added impetus on Space globally and India too is opening up aiming for brighter stars. Add to this the SSLV (small satellite launch vehicle), which failed in its first attempt but is being readied for a second launch, and the prospects look better giving India a basket of launch vehicles to offer to global customers.

The progress on development of a second spaceport spread across 2,300 acres in Tamil Nadu’s Kulasekharapatnam will also be a shot in the arm. That said, the Mk3 must also increase its capacity further. For, it may boast of having the highest payload capacity in India, but it is at best, only a medium-lift rocket going by global standards. SpaceX’s Falcon-9, for example, can carry 23,000kg to LEO compared to Mk3’s 8,000 kg.

Isro has on its drawing board plans of making GSLV-Mk3 heavier to meet domestic strategic demand and reduce dependence on firms like Arianespace, whose services it employs to launch its own heavy satellites, and to also leverage commercial benefits. Yet, this may not suffice. As important as reliability and weight-lifting capabilities are, in the long-run, the cost of access to space will also assume importance. 

At present, it would cost an estimated Rs 14 lakh to put one-kg in LEO using a PSLV and an estimated Rs 5.7 lakh on a Mk3. Even globally, putting things into space is not cheap. As per NASA’s advanced space transportation project, “Today, it costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth orbit…The goal is to reduce this by a 100-fold.”

This is the reason all major space endeavours place such importance on reusable launch vehicles. According to multiple Isro scientists, mastering this technology would reduce the launch cost to 1/10th of what it is at present. India is a long way away from this technology. The VSSC, in May 2016 successfully launched a scaled down version of the re-usable launch vehicle technology demonstrator (RLV-TD) but there has been little progress since even as a landing experiment of a full scale vehicle is impending. It could happen anytime before March 2023.

The same centre, in September 2022 tested a new technology — Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (IAD) — which once mastered will help development of a reusable vehicle. All efforts for an RLV so far have been for a winged, aircraft-like vehicle, while a vehicle with vertical take-0ff and landing (VTOL) would be the most effective. This poses a more challenging task of developing technologies needed for the vertical landing.

And this draws attention, no matter premature, to the recent buzzword: NGLV. This refers to a New Generation Launch Vehicle that’s reusable that Isro is planning to build and for a change, has been publicly acknowledged. 

The reusable aspect has added wings to the anticipation even as its realisation is impossible this decade and difficult even in the next. Yet, Isro’s thought process is in the right direction. This, when developed, and a heavier Mk3 and reliable SSLV would give Isro a complete range of rockets to cater to all types of demand. The agency shouldn’t reduce priority on launch vehicle development even amid big-ticket missions like Gaganyaan. And that’s important because, in the long-run, whether you wish to place a communication satellite in an Earth orbit, a constellation that enables accurate navigation in cities and villages, have ambitions of exploring faraway celestial objects like Mars and Venus or sending humans to Space, it all depends on launch vehicles.

No Rocket. No Access To Space.

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