India’s vehicle of choice for getting to space for the last two decades has undoubtedly been the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Barring a recent, and arguably minor, failure during its C39 mission (the payload fairings did not deploy), the PSLV has an enviable record of flying 39 successful missions in 24 years.
Given a recent and increasing demand for launches to low-Earth orbit (LEO) – from within the country as well as from foreign satellite-makers, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has taken a proactive step to produce the PSLV at an industrial scale.
Additionally, as a buildup to some interesting demands by the small-satellites community, among others, the PSLV team has demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to switch orbits within a single mission by reactivating its fourth stage motor. This allows the PSLV to drop satellites off in different orbits as well as allow small satellites to piggyback on larger ones. Because many small sats don’t carry active debris removal equipment, the option to place them in lower orbits than possible by other rockets, together with their short mission duration, makes for a great advantage.
All together, the future trajectory of India’s commercial spaceflights is closely aligned with that of the PSLV. So by assessing the challenges facing the industrialisation and marketing of the PSLV, we can get a clearer picture of what India needs to do become a bigger operator than it currently is.
For starters, A.S. Kiran Kumar, the chairman of ISRO, has publicised the details of the plan to have the first PSLV rockets produced by the industry by 2021. This is a good opportunity for ISRO’s suppliers, who have been eager to move up the supply chain, deepen their knowledge and secure more business.
Second, the draft Space Activities Bill attempts to provide some legal foundations of the PSLV’s industrialisation, especially on matters of licensing, supervision and liability. However, the document is surprisingly generic and fails to address issues on a specific basis. It will also have to provide more information about insuring launches and determining liability ceilings before it can be truly useful for the Indian space programme. Fortunately for the Department of Space, there is sufficient reference material out there – in the form of the laws and policies that have facilitated commercial space launches in the US for over three decades now.
Internationally, one of the PSLV’s major stumbling blocks has been access to free markets. Most of the demand for small-satellite launches (especially of the cubesat form-factor) has arisen thus far from the US and have been met suitably by the PSLV. Indeed, the American market is the biggest for small-sats, making up over half of the global demand. However, it’s not easy to be an American satellite-maker and launch your hardware on the PSLV. This requires a written waiver from the US State Department; it is also usually given since there aren’t enough launches happening from American soil.
At the same time, removing this barrier alone won’t be enough. There are now several dedicated small-satellite launch vehicles being developed in the US. They are expected to start serving customers starting 2018. Notable examples: Rocket Lab, Vector Space and Virgin Orbit – all of which have rockets that can carry 100-500 kg to LEO. It was on the back of their potential that the spaceflight industry lobbied the US government to stop providing waivers even as the PSLV launched 96 US satellites on its C37 mission in February 2017. Some of the launchers have even promised a one-week turnaround time; the PSLV takes about 40 days. The final word on this rests with the Donald Trump administration, and hopefully the president will see it as an opportunity to put US-India bilateral ties ahead of the interests of one domestic sector.
While many people believe that the launch industry is focused on bringing down launch cost (assuming the vehicle is reliable), the small-satellites industry actually cares more about how quickly their satellites can be put in orbit. So if a low-cost operator charges $30,000/kg and a dedicated small-satellite launcher, about $50,000/kg, then the savings for a 3U cubesat will be around $60,000. But this gain will be quickly nullified if the cubesat operator has to wait in the order of months. And this is the case today: the average wait time is between six months and a year.
So for as long as investors evaluate revenues generated by a cubesat against launch cost savings, universities and research labs will have to take the backseat while commercial satellites take the wheel.
It is against this background that we must address ISRO’s recent decision to develop a small LEO launch vehicle to lift 500 kg to 500 km. This rocket, expected to be operational by early 2019, will cater to cubesats and microsatellites. ISRO has also said that its turnaround time will be less than one week. Effectively, this vehicle can compete with Rocket Lab, Vector Space and Virgin Orbit on availability, price and reliability – not only for American payloads, which remain a bet against getting future waivers, but cubesats and microsatellites from around the world.
This is a good time to return our gaze home, where the space organisation expects industry players to produce 12-18 PSLVs a year, which can sate both domestic and international demand. However, ISRO must also expect the small-satellite launcher to mature quickly. Because if this happens, it will be important for ISRO to work out the entire supply chain, assembly and launch-pad operations by benchmarking current international trends. These are crucial things to keep in mind if India’s turnaround time has to match that of its international competitors’.
Therefore, the vision for commercial exploitation of space launches from India may well be a two-pronged approach: a small launcher alongside the PSLV – both together being able to launch 1-15 kg cubesats, 30-150 kg microsatellites and the larger Indian-Remote-Sensing-class satellites. The next big question will then become about how technology, market access and production can change between now and 2021.
India’s road to industrialising the PSLV is similar to that taken by the French government in setting up Arianespace as the world’s first commercial space launch company in the 1980s. Ariane has since come a long way: it is now privately owned by Airbus and Safran, and independently invests in the development of launch vehicle. ISRO must consider a similar roadmap for launch vehicles in India – where the industry becomes able to serve national and international demand for interplanetary, geostationary and LEO missions by itself.
Narayan Prasad is a NewSpace enthusiast.