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A Nano for the final frontier

‘Cheaper access to orbit’ is the name of the game and the ISRO has taken it to a whole new level with its maiden moonshot that is now attracting attention for the same reason that the Nano did: the price tag, reports Prakash Chandra.

delhi Updated: Oct 26, 2008 00:22 IST
Prakash Chandra

Will India’s space mission be for satellite commerce what the Tata Nano is for the automobile industry?

‘Cheaper access to orbit’ is the name of the game and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has taken it to a whole new level with its maiden moonshot that is now attracting attention for the same reason that the Nano did: the price tag.

Chandrayaan-1 costs $80 million (Rs 400 crore), the cheapest moon voyage ever in 49 years of lunar exploration. That’s no more than buying 80 coaches for Delhi’s Metro.

China went to the moon last year, but its Change-E1 costs $190 million. The European Space Agency’s SMART-1 costs $145 million, and Japan’s Selene $480 million.

To top it all, ISRO operates on a far smaller budget than any of the major space agencies: less than $1 billion. The US’ National Aeronatutics and Space Administration (NASA)? More than $22 billion every year.

A lion’s share of its budget goes for development-related missions, leaving little for advanced research, Isro has quietly ramped up its space effort by developing novel approaches. “We always work in mission mode and never lose sight of our objectives,” said ISRO chief G. Madhavan Nair.

One of the major objectives, he says, is “to gain low-cost access to space and improve India’s competitiveness.”

To do that, ISRO has to bring down the costs of putting a kilo of payload into space to the range of $500-1,000. Current figures vary between $12,000-15,000 per kg using our own satellite launch vehicles.

A launcher takes hundreds of millions of dollars to build, but can only be used once, and that too to put less than three per cent of its lift-off weight into orbit. That’s like discarding a new jetliner after its first flight.

As a result, expendable launchers cost 10,000-times more per flight than airliners. India still cannot launch communication satellites heavier than two tonnes, and only the next generation of Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle could improve on this. But Isro scientists are pleased with the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV): C-11’s textbook launch last Wednesday and the way its computers, telemetry packages, navigation and guidance systems controlled the flight from lift-off to earth orbit.

With an impeccable launch success record, the PSLV could tap the emerging market for low-earth orbiting communication satellites.

Also on the horizon is an indigenous reusable launch vehicle (RLV) — a desi version of the space shuttle.

Unmanned, it will blast off like a rocket from Sriharikota and glide back to earth like an aircraft, dropping into the sea to be recovered. The shuttle part of the RLV will help in reducing the cost of launches, launching a tonne of payload into orbit for about $70 per kilo.