M D Riti reports for the GSLV launch
  March 26, 2001     HOME | NEWS | SPECIALS














Part 1

'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 requirements."

"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 orbit.

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 Sampath says.

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 marketable.

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 called bus.

"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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