The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) has added another feather to its cap by successfully lofting the Italian satellite, AGILE, into low-earth orbit using the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C-8. India’s space scientists can be justifiably proud of the next generation computers, telemetry packages, navigation and guidance systems that apparently controlled the PSLV’s flight from lift-off to satellite injection so perfectly. Although Isro’s workhorse launcher has already orbited half a dozen small foreign satellites before, this launch was a crucial test for India’s capabilities for entering the lucrative global satellite launch market in a big way. Isro can now confidently solicit launch orders from other countries by putting competitive bids, especially to developing countries, much as the US, Russia, Europe, and China do.
Having said that, Isro cannot afford to rest on its laurels and must develop bigger boosters if its launch capabilities are to climb towards double-digit tonnage. The country still cannot launch communication satellites which are above two tonnes. Augmentation of launch capability is inarguably the most important goal for any space agency and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) provides Isro with a cost-effective means to launch larger satellites from home turf. In hindsight, it was unfortunate that India took more than 30 years to build its first GSLV, dragging its feet on whether to buy cryogenic engine technology (which uses fuels like liquid oxygen and hydrogen stored at very low temperatures) off-the-shelf, or to develop it indigenously. Rockets belonging to the GSLV class are the workhorse launchers for US, Russian, European and Chinese space agencies, and Isro must accelerate the GSLV’s development programme.
On the successful development of newer avatars of the GSLV depend Isro’s chances of capturing the global launch market and reducing India’s dependence on foreign launchers like the ESA’s Ariane booster. The space agency should also focus on developing technologies like air-breathing engines that could go into a reusable launch vehicle (RLV). Perhaps the spin-offs from India’s moon effort could help Isro overcome many of the engineering challenges involved in developing a single-stage-to-orbit booster. An RLV will meet future demands for cutting launch costs of heavier payloads, and enable Isro to turn Sriharikota into a busy commercial space port along the lines of the ESA’s Kourou in French Guiana.