'It is technically a good vehicle'
"The GSLV [Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch
Vehicle]," says Dr Sampath, managing director, Antrix Corporation,
the commercial wing of the Indian Space Research Organisation, "is
significant in India becoming a one-stop shop for global space
"We have already shown the world that we can build successful commercial
satellites," he continues. "Now if we prove that we can launch it
correctly, it would be the next step."
The GSLV flight scheduled on Wednesday, March 28, from the Sriharikota
range will be a test attempt. The payload it carries, mostly measuring
and testing equipment, has been kept deliberately low: just 1,530 kg.
Eventually, it should be able to carry 2,000 kg or more.
Dr Sampath says Antrix will not try to market GSLV launch services for
at least two years.
"I will wait for two or three launches before I go for commercial
marketing," the IIM graduate, now in his element selling space
technology, explains. "It is technically a good vehicle. We will have
to work out the pricing of launches after this flight."
And how much could a launch be priced at? That will be known only after
March 28. Based on estimates and the PSLV rates, Dr Sampath feels it
will be "competitive compared to Western launchers".
"We will have to see what the final capacity of our vehicle will be,
what is the corresponding price the market can bear, and what kind of
customers we will come across," he says.
What Antrix is looking at in a year or two is to provide its clients a
complete space package: build a satellite and deliver it to him in
But then, Russia and China, could provide competition to Antrix. Russia,
for one, has converted many of its missile launchers into rocket
launchers. So its launches can work out very economical, as it needn't
build a vehicle from scratch.
"When we face the market with the GSLV, we will see how we stand
price-wise. I am not comfortable with our cost in comparison with the
Chinese and Russians. But we hope we will do well in an open market," Dr
THE main problem that Antrix faces in marketing its launch
services right now is that its proven launcher, the Polar Satellite
Launch Vehicle, cannot carry payloads over 1,000 kg.
In essence this means that Antrix have to either try for 50 kg micro
satellites or for bigger 300 to 500 kg satellites. Either option means
that each flight must carry two or three satellites. And it is
difficult, as Dr Sampath points out, to find two customers in the same
timeframe and orbital requirements. In any case, there are very few
satellites belonging to that class.
The last PSLV flight carried two small commercial payloads: the 105-kg
Kidsat from South Korea and the 45-kg Tupsat from Germany.
With the next PSLV launch, the ISRO will try to improve its
marketability by releasing satellites at different heights. The launcher
will carry two piggybacks in addition to the main remote sensing
payload, both in the 105 to 110 kg class.
One is from Belgium, the other from Germany. The German satellite would
be released soon after the remote sensing satellite. But the Belgian one
needs to be released at a different height. So the PSLV will be taken
further. This, Sampath, hopes will make the launch vehicle more
Will GSLV be able to better this payload? Though designed to carry 2,500
kg satellites, it is now going up with just 1,530 kg.
"This is because we have more overheads in developmental launches. Now
we are trying to observe what is happening, not just put a satellite
into orbit," Dr Sampath hastens to explain. "You don't want to risk the
first one by testing it to its maximum capability, right?"
THE ISRO plans to build a standardised satellite launching
platform to make its services more viable.
"We are working on optimising a spacecraft bus, which we have called
I2000. It will carry different types of payload," says Dr Sampath. "The
name comes from the fact that it will carry 2000 kg class of satellites.
In fact, we now call it I2K.
"Once we standardise the platform and make the payload changes according
to customer requirements, we can economise on satellite prices, as we
can then buy components in bulk. We would not need to redesign
everything every time. Payloads will change, that's all," he adds.
What exactly is a satellite bus? "A satellite consists of two major
elements," Dr Sampath explains. "One is the payload, which in the case
of communication satellites will be transponders.
"To support the payload may be required some amount of power, generated
through solar panels, batteries and so on. There will be a thermal
control system and a structure on which all this is mounted.
"Then, there will be a professional system that carries the satellite
from the GTO to the GO (two different kinds of orbit), and maintains it
in orbit. Then, there will be spacecraft electronics, and control
sensors and actuators. All this, which is other than the payload is
"Once we standardise the platform, we can manufacture it as a production
line, and build the elements of the payload as the customer wants: one
satellite may be all KU Band, one may be all C Band and so on.
"Every time you change the bus, you end up developing new items. This
causes problems of both the element of uncertainty as well as the cost
of a new development. Besides, it also causes delays in time schedules.
All this is bad for a commercially successful design.
"This is what most space technology companies have done. We have taken
some time to do it because we had to do some satellites to decide what
designs we should follow. Now we are working on two satellite
mainframes: the I2K bus and the I3K bus.
"I2K will be compatible with the GSLV, and that is what we will be able
to offer customers. The target of the GSLV development also is to grow
to a GSLV03, which is a three-tonne launcher."
There is more to the space business than just putting a satellite in
orbit. The ultimate step is operationalising what you have launched and
marketing its data and value-added services.
Dr Sampath would very much like to be part of the broadcast business,
with ISRO's range of communication satellites.
"Many new customers do not know much about spacecraft business and would
appreciate our telling them how to handle it," he says. "You should know
what a satellite can be used for: multimedia applications, broadcasting
or Internet services.
"You should be able to bring them into the VSAT business too. If you see
some of the countries who have just begun space business, they have had
analysis done on what they really need, and have begun building ground
infrastructure and usage pattern for telecom services or broadcasting."
Scientists and advisors of the Indian space programme feel that India
should go into business with its launch services in a big way.
"We need to commercialise our launch facilities to justify the huge
investment we have made on them," says R Aravamudan, former director of
the ISRO Satellite Centre.
"Our ultimate aim," he concludes, "should be to become a space-faring
nation that launches satellites for other countries even as we cater to
our own needs."
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