New Delhi: In a written statement presented to the Lok Sabha on July 19, the government said that the Cartosat 2E satellite and 30 nanosatellites had been successfully launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on June 23 this year. The statement came in reply to a question asked by MPs Satav Rajeev and P.R. Sundaram.
The minister of state for the Department of Space, Jitendra Singh, confirmed that “29 of the 30 nanosatellites were launched under a commercial arrangement between Antrix Corporation Limited (Antrix), the commercial arm of ISRO and the foreign customers. “One nanosatellite, NIUSAT (weighing 15 kg), was from Noorul Islam University, Tamil Nadu.”
Those 29 were from Austria, Belgium, Chile, the Czech Republic, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, the UK and the US. And as a result, Singh said, “Antrix has earned foreign exchange of about € 6.1 million.” This is around Rs 45.2 crore.
Between 1990 and 2014, ISRO had launched 40 satellites for foreign clients and earned Rs 484 crore. In 2015, according to a statement issued by the Department of Space, Antrix earned Rs 230 crore through “commercial launch services”. A marked shift since then has been that the US has become Antrix’s largest customer even though the first commercial American satellite was launched only in 2015. This also happened despite an embargo maintained by the US government that prohibits American companies from launching commercial satellites on Indian rockets. However, ad hoc waivers have been granted, and increasingly so, because of the unavailability of affordable American launchers.
The global satellite launch services market has been valued at $5.4 billion (Rs 36,000 crore). While ISRO has a paltry 0.6% share, it is only expected to increase thanks to a boom in the manufacture and use of nanosatellites – instruments with a wet mass of 1-10 kg. ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which launched all the 40 foreign satellites in 1990-2014, has a payload capacity of 1,500 kg to the low-Earth orbit, the orbit that nanosatellites typically occupy.
ISRO and Antrix have been marketing the PSLV as a low-cost launch vehicle aimed, for example, at nations that have demonstrated a capacity for building and operating satellites but not launching them.
An even bigger share of the pie will come ISRO’s way only if it expands its launch capabilities and offers a cheaper launch option for satellites weighing 5,000-10,000 kg and up to the higher geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), the perch of choice for communication satellites. Thanks to burgeoning competition from private launch services providers like SpaceX, there has been a marked drive by companies around the world to reduce launch costs.
The Indian organisation has an opportunity in the form of its GSLV Mk III launch vehicle, the first developmental flight of which happened successfully on June 5, 2017. The upper stage of the Mk III is powered by the CE 20 indigenous cryogenic engine, allowing the rocket to lift around 4,000 kg to the GTO.
It has also been working on building an indigenous scramjet engine and announced that it has started work on a semi-cryogenic engine, fuelled by liquid oxygen and liquid kerosene, as well. Both these engines will be able to provide additional heft to rockets without the concomitant increase in the amount of fuel to be carried. The reusable launch vehicle (RLV) that ISRO plans to roll out by 2030 is expected to be able to carry more than 10,000 kg to the GTO, powered by one scramjet engine and five semi-cryogenic engines.
However, by then, other launch service providers will have been expected to up their game, so it remains unclear if ISRO or Antrix will bill the RLV in the same vein as the PSLV: as a cheaper launch option for foreign customers.