ISRO: India’s Profitable Space Organisation

Gautam Mukherjee | 16 Feb 2017 12:26 PM

Indian PSLV rocket lifts off with 104 satellites / Courtesy: DD News

ISRO- Indian Space Research Organisation, has just launched 104 small satellites via a single payload, setting a new world record.

The Indian Space Agency used its most powerful rocket for this launch- the XL Variant. It was earlier used to launch the famous Chandrayaan and Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

With this launch, Russia’s record, with 37 satellites launched simultaneously, stands shattered.

Of  ISRO’s 104, 96 satellites were from the US, one each of 5, from another five countries, and 3 from India.

The patronage of American organisations with the US being the most scientifically advanced country in the world, underlines ISRO’s competence and competitiveness in the field.

After all, even Elon Musk’s cost-slashing Space X, let alone multiples more expensive organisations like Arianespace, cannot do such launches for less than four times the ISRO cost.

Hence, with this century plus satellite launch, ISRO has taken centre stage globally.

India uses a very successful and economical PSLV- polar satellite launch vehicle, an expendable launch system, entirely indigenously developed and built.

This complicated simultaneous launch of 104 satellites marked ISRO’s PSLV C37’s 39th flight in-series.

Launching satellites is an expensive business generally, and estimated costs range between $60 million and $ 400 million for a single launch internationally.

However ISRO has not only worked out how to launch over a hundred satellites on a single payload, but has managed to bring the cost down to as little as $15 million per satellite launched.

ISRO, government-owned, headquartered in Bengaluru, formed in 1969, is an exception to the rule of mostly inefficient, funds guzzling, government organisations.

With an expanded scope of works, it superseded its fledgling predecessor, the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR), established in 1962 by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the iconic scientist Vikram Sarabhai.

That it works so well administratively and scientifically to date, may have something to do with the fact that ISRO reports directly to the Prime Minister via a Department of Space.

And this, on a slim budget of just $1.4 billion per estimated 2017-18 figures, for doing very much more than just launching satellites.

Future plans include a human spaceflight programme, orbiter missions to Venus, Jupiter, the Sun and a repeat to Mars with an expanded brief.

But for the moment, it has already completed orbiting missions to both the Moon and Mars.

A telling cartoon in the Western press just after the successful Mars mission had a poor Indian peasant in droopy moustache, knee length Mahatma-style dhoti, and sweaty white turban, accompanied by a bewildered cow, knocking on the door of  a plush “fat cat” space club.

The space exploration work is in addition to its own satellite building programmes and the reliable business it runs by launching satellites and placing them in their geostationary orbits via its GSLV – geosynchronous launch vehicle programme.

The latest launch also had a nano-satellite each from Israel, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Switzerland, and the UAE (United Arab Emirates), apart from three from India as well.

ISRO has a separate commercial arm called ANTRIX (Antrix Corporation Limited), incorporated fairly recently, in 1992. Its latest published annual revenue was $280 million, with an operating income of $ 48 million and a profit of $30 million.

But let us also note that the most satellites launched at one time via a single payload by ISRO/Antrix heretofore was only 23, in 2015.

Going up to launching 104 small satellites this time therefore is a five-fold quantum leap.

Globally, the space industry including ground support, building, launching and placing satellites, small ones and bigger, at over 2 tonnes each, in their geostationary orbits, clocks up upwards of $ 300 billion. Of course, much of the really big money is in the launching of heavy satellites.

ISRO’s GSLV business, for heavier payloads, will also start to grow along with more successful launches, even beyond the 2.5 tonne payload capacity GSLV Mark II, currently active.

So far, successful GSLV Mark II launches number only in the single digits. And while ISRO’s GSLV I has now been retired, the GSLV Mark III, coming up shortly, will handle the launching of satellites weighing up to 5 tonnes each, and save the GSLV programme from obsolescence.

For now, this record launch places India and ISRO firmly in the forefront  of the small satellite launching business. That is, for satellites up to a weight of 1,800 kg.

Some of the US ones sent up by a start-up called Impact One this time however, weigh as little as 4.7 kg!

Clearly, to all foreign observers, ISRO has now notched up a proven track record of over 25 flawless and sequential PSLV launches, to commend itself to the future.

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