India has long proven its proficiency in the kind of rocket that launched a record number of satellites at one go on Wednesday, but the country’s future growth in space will depend exclusively on its success with the indigenous Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) programme that is now far from perfect.
The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which was used on Wednesday to deliver 104 satellites into Earth’s orbit, has been the work horse of Indian space programme, notching up about 40 successful launches since 1994. But it cannot carry communication satellites weighing more than 2,000kg into space.
This limits India’s ability to compete with countries such as France or China for the $300 billion global space industry, and also forces it to hire foreign space firms to launch its own heavy satellites.
So far, India’s GSLV programme is far from reliable, having been successfully launched only twice using a home-built cryogenic engine after more than a decade of setbacks. The repeated failure of the programme saw GSLV being termed as the ‘naughty boy’ of ISRO.
The first time it did so was in January 2014, launching the GSLV-D5 which put ISRO on the map of a select club of nations that can launch heavy satellites. The agency again successfully launched a GSLV-MkII rocket in September last.
But experts see these as just the first step in the direction of developing a reliable launch system for the delivery of heavy satellites into different orbits.
“Our aim should be to become proficient in GSLV launches because then we can carry payload category of 4500-5000 kg,” said S Satish, formerly of ISRO.
“The big bucks of space business lies in that.”
For Indian space scientists, that goal is now being worked upon. ISRO is developing the GSLV-Mk III launch vehicle which is expected to deliver payload weighing 4500 to 5000kg.
In comparison, Russian and French rockets can carry four times that payload and into higher orbits.
“Now we are targeting GSLV MkII and then Mk III... a series of launch activities (have been) planned to ensure that like last year this year also we have many exciting events coming,” ISRO chief AS Kiran Kumar said after Wednesday’s achievement.
ISRO’s long term plans include undertaking more than 50 missions and deploying 500 satellite communications transponders by 2019.
That is easier said than done, given that ISRO is still to consistently prove the GSLV design, realisation and sustained firing of its indigenous cryogenic engine.
Until then, experts say, it cannot hope to offer itself as a low-cost option for launching heavy satellites that would give stiff competition to global commercial satellite launch companies such as Europe’s Ariane or Russia’s Proton rockets.