Shining In Space

Eclipsing Russian record in space by launching 104 satellites, India has strongly bid into global space merchandise of $130 million with its low cost satellite launch vehicle

By DANFES

While it costs around six times of Indian cost in satellite test fire in European Countries while in the US it costs more than 9 times which has made Indian bid into the global satellite merchandise with a bang when the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully launched a record 104 satellites into orbit at one go, shattering the previous Russian record of 37 (set in June 2014). The total payload included India’s 714kg Cartosat-2 and 103 nano satellites – two Indian, 96 American and one each from Israel, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and UAE. The significant foreign cargo exemplifies ISRO’s excellent stock in the satellite launch market.

ECONOMIC VIABILITY

ISRO’s cost-effective and reliable satellite launch model, among its other achievements, is certainly reason to conclude that the space agency represents the best of India’s scientific prowess. The problem, though, is that such technological excellence is rarely visible in other sectors. From consumer goods to defense, the presence of successful Indian products and innovation is minimal. Even in the premier IT sector, Indian companies mostly excel at providing services to foreign clients rather than creating cutting-edge IT products. This lack of inventive spirit bodes ill for a country that wants to emerge as a global knowledge and technology hub.

It may be true, but has now become passé, to state that China is the factory floor of the world while Indian manufacturing is limping along. The point is that even in areas such as design, technology, innovation and scientific patents China has powered far ahead of India. This is the result of an Indian system that prefers bureaucratic red tape to merit or innovation. While private sector companies may have a better work culture than public sector organizations in India, they invest very little in R&D. Our premier technical institutes such as the IITs are best known for their undergraduate students rather than cutting edge research.

Heavy-handed regulation of India’s educational institutions has also stifled creativity and innovation. It’s being said that America doesn’t produce enough STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) graduates of its own and will need to rely on Indian talent, President Donald Trump’s disinclination to admit foreigners notwithstanding. But why does Indian talent need to be married to American institutions to succeed? If we have the talent, why can’t we have the institutions, thereby benefiting India rather than America? ISRO may be one such institution but India needs many, many others.

In that sense, as Mukesh Ambani has suggested, Trump may be a blessing in disguise if he prompts India to rethink its fundamentals, and start producing and innovating instead of just feeding talent to foreign shores.

MTCR ENTRY MATTERS

Here’s the not-so-well-known reason behind Indian Space Research Organization’s recent and immensely successful run. ISRO, which launched a world-record 104 satellites at one go on Wednesday, has been able to upgrade its efforts thanks to India’s recent entry into an elite global club — the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

Senior officials who are working on improving ISRO’s commercial satellite launch prospects spoke off record and briefed on the details. An ISRO official, who requested anonymity, told that the agency “doesn’t speak about these things”.

India joined MTCR in June 2016, and thanks to that, New Delhi has access to high-end testing technology for its solid rocket booster propulsion system, which fires up the first stage of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

Testing this system was a slow process until now with limited technology access. Many key components to upgrade the technology were in controlled items lists under MTCR due to their dual military use. Since India’s MTCR membership in June 2016, four PSLVs have been launched including the one on Wednesday. Faster testing of the solid rocket booster means the period between two launches is reduced.

SATELLITE MERCHANDISE

With frequency of launches going up, more commercial payloads can be carried. Officials said access to MTCR’s controlled items has led to major efforts in making India a bigger player in the $300-billion satellite launch market.

In 2016, India did six PSLV launches — twice the number in 2015. Overall, ISRO launches 8-12 big satellites in a year. The plan is to raise this to 18-24 in the coming years, a senior official told. Wednesday’s launch of 104 satellites included a majority, including nano, or very small satellites.

India is already a cost-efficient satellite launcher. ISRO’s launch cost is around $15 million on the PSLV. Comparatively, SpaceX charges up to $60 million and China $70 million. The bill can be $150 million for the European Union’s Ariane space launch vehicles.

“While we are cost-efficient, we must also work to offer the entire range and launch more frequently to become a reliable partner,” said an official.

ISRO is now looking at carrying payloads of up to 5,000 kg in its next series, the PSLV C3, which is undergoing operational tests. The current PSLV can launch payloads of up to 1,500 kg.

High-level discussions are also on to rope in the private sector in industries ancillary to the launch activity so that ISRO can focus on the high-end side of the innovation chain, an official said.

“Given the number of countries that are seeking slots, one can assume there is growing confidence in ISRO. Satellite applications are only diversifying, hence launches are a growing market and that’s why MTCR membership was timely,” an official told.

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