India has long proved its proficiency in launching the kind of rocket Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw lift off on Monday, 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 reliable.
The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) has been the work horse of Indian space programme, notching up 26 successful launches since 1994, but 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 multi-million dollar global satellite launch business as well as forces it to hire foreign space firms to launch its own heavy satellites.
So far, India’s GSLV programme is far from perfect, having been successfully launched only once 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.
In January this year, Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) successfully launched GSLV-D5 using its indigenous cryogenic technology, putting it on the map of a select club of nations that can launch heavy satellites.
But experts see it as just the first step in the direction of developing a reliable launch system for the delivery of heavy satellites into different orbits.
“We must build on this success to become proficient in GSLV launches as well,” says S Satish, formerly of Isro.
“We are still far from being able to deliver payloads weighing 4500-5000kg.”
For Indian space scientists, that goal is now being worked upon. Besides developing the GSLV-MK II, which has a comparatively low payload capacity, 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.
“The fact is we should be paying more attention to our GSLV programme than celebrating yet another PSLV launch,” said an official connected with India’s space programme on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Currently, Isro plans to undertake more than 50 missions and is proposing to deploy 500 satellite communications transponders in the next five years.
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.
Watch: Isro launches PSLV C-23 with 5 satellites
Until then, experts say, it cannot hope to offer itself as a low-cost launch 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.