The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) has several reasons to be delighted with the successful launch of the geo-synchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV) F04 last weekend. Considering that this marked the return-to-flight of the GSLV programme — after a booster engine failure doomed a launch in July last year — Isro scientists can take credit for bouncing back. The GSLV put into orbit the Insat 4CR satellite that is expected to operate for at least ten years, offering direct-to-home television broadcasting, video picture transmissions and digital satellite news-gathering services from its geo-stationary orbit some 22,300 miles above the Indian Ocean.
The future of the global satellite-launch market is all about communication satellites and the Insat series is crucial to Isro’s target of capturing 5-10 per cent of the mid-range satellite segment (of two tonnes and more) of this market in the next five years. But for this to happen, Isro must augment its launch capability to compete with heavy-lift launchers like the European Ariane and America Delta and Atlas rockets that dominate the business of heavy-lift launchers and boosters. Isro should leapfrog to the advanced versions of the GSLV as soon as possible. True, when the first GSLV-Mark III flies early next year, it will enable Isro to launch three tonne payloads into geo-stationary orbit, reducing India’s dependence on foreign launchers. It will even give Isro the capability to build orbiting space stations. The space agency, however, can’t ignore the fact that by then other players would probably have saturated the market and pushed the bar still higher.
Engineers design satellite launch vehicles using the thumb rule that they should have a maximum of 3-5 per cent payload fraction capability in orbit. This makes it imperative for conventional boosters to make way for reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) for heavier payloads at lesser cost. RLVs need low maintenance and have quick turnaround times that could cut launch costs to less than a tenth of current costs.