January 2, 2013
By all means, 2012 can be considered a watershed year for the Indian space programme. The programme had begun modestly in November 1963 with the launch of a 9-kg sounding rocket from a modest facility in the fishing hamlet of Thumba on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. 2012 saw the 100th space mission of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). On September 9, 2012, the four stage workhorse PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) orbited the 720-kg French remote sensing satellite Spot-6 along with the 15-kg Japanese Proiteres probe as a piggy back payload on commercial terms, and in the process helped ISRO complete the saga of a “space century”. The significance of the mission lay in the fact that the PSLV, considered a highly reliable space vehicle, launched the heaviest ever satellite of an international customer on commercial terms.
The PSLV has so far launched 29 satellites for international customers on commercial terms. Its versatility lies in the fact that it can launch satellites into a variety of orbits. But then ISRO’s continued dependence on a single operational launch vehicle in the form of the PSLV implies that heavier class home grown INSAT/GSAT series of communications satellites are hoisted into space by means of procured launch services. Not surprisingly then the 3,400-kg GSAT-10 satellite carrying 30 communications transponders and a payload designed to support the Gagan satellite based, civilian aircraft navigation and management system was launched by the Araine-5 vehicle in September 2012. The continued dependence on Ariane-5 for deploying the heavier class Indian communications satellites not only implies a huge foreign exchange outgo but also makes for a far from sound strategic approach. For, in the context of the rapidly shifting global geopolitical dynamics, the timely accessibility to a procured launch service could become a difficult and challenging proposition in the years ahead.
Indeed, the failure of ISRO to qualify the home grown cryogenic engine stage, meant to power the three-stage Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), has forced India to go in for commercial launch services to get its heavier class communications satellites off the ground. The long delay in mastering the complexities of the cryogenic propulsion system based on liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen mix implies that there are serious challenges ahead in putting in operational mode the GSLV-MKII capable of placing a 2.5-tonne class satellite and the high performance GSLV-MKIII capable of deploying a 4-tonne class satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbits. The failure of the two GSLV missions during 2010—one with a home grown upper cryogenic stage and the other with a Russian origin cryogenic engine stage—proved to be a setback for the Indian launch vehicle development programme.
Though ISRO had planned a GSLV-MKII launch with an indigenous upper cryogenic stage during 2012, it stood postponed to 2013. The qualification of a 400-tonne plus GSLV is critical for ISRO to sustain some of its high profile projects including the Chandrayaan-II mission slated for take off sometime during the middle of this decade. The Chandrayaan-II mission to the moon, which would feature an Indian orbiter and rover and a Russian lander, is a follow up to India’s maiden lunar probe Chandrayaan-1 launched in 2008.