PSLV-C29 a success! Can the workhorse be an international cash carriage?

Today 16 Dec. 15, the Indian PSLV C29 rocket carried 6 Singaporean satellites to an equatorial orbit at 6 PM from Sriharikota launch centre. There were a few significant aspects of this launch campaign that are of technical, geo-political and commercial significance.

This was this was the first buy out of an entire rocket by Singapore after their previous launch experience of XSAT as a piggyback on PSLV in 2011. The launch projects the strengthening of interest of regional and international players to confidently procure entire launch vehicle based on their initial experiences.

The occasion is a celebration of the 50th year anniversary of Singapore (50th year of international collaboration with India) and incidentally also marks 50th rocket launched by Indian (including SLV, ASLV, PSLV, GSLV).

A special experiment was carried out by PSLV launch team to shut-off and re-ignite the fourth stage of the rocket to test technology that can be used to deliver satellites to different orbits after the main payload has been separated. This technology can be especially useful to delivering small satellites to lower orbits after the primary passenger of the rocket is safely put into orbit. This provides potentially an excellent choice for small satellite makers to choose PSLV for their secondary payloads (upto 150kg) to operate satellite from lower orbits.

Given the current trend in development of Earth Observation (EO) satellites by commercial companies in swarms, this can add tremendous value in the current EO market for satellite operators. This also provides limited agility to counter against dedicated small satellite launchers who can deliver such payloads to low-altitudes (~350-500km) within Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

An announcement was made in the post-launch presentation by ISRO that the agency is looking to launch PSLV on a monthly basis. This is an extremely challenging and uphill task since the launch rates on average in the recent years have at best been 4-6 launches/year. There possibly needs to be a lot of supply chain optimisation alongside setting up of additional launch infrastructure (3rd launch pad, complexes, integration facility, etc.) to make this a reality.

Such a launch frequency from India provides an excellent opportunity for the Indian industry to possibly explore an Ariane Space like Public Private Partnership (PPP) with ISRO to produce these rockets. However, this has been on the anvil for a long time and there are still doubts regarding such a proposition taking off.

If such a PPP model does evolve, some of the interesting question that need to be answered shall be

  • Currently 80% of the launch vehicle is done by the industry. Will this increase to 100% (remaining IP transfer to industry) built industry built PSLV or will ISRO continue with the present model? If they do continue with the present model is there sufficient manpower to cater to the increased production rates?
  • Can the PPP as a whole take charge of launch pads and operate it? What happens to the IP, liabilities related aspects of launch vehicle and launch safety? Will we need a specific policy to govern such a PPP?
  • From a commercial perspective, will the PPP itself market capability and sign clients or will Antrix Corporation continue to do this acting as a broker between the client ant the PPP entity?

ISRO has no doubt made fantastic technological feats that are laudable. However, there is an uphill task for policy makers within the Department of Space and Space Commission to take charge of key issues in policy to possibly use the technological backbone to also explore commercial business in the international market effectively.

This week saw the UK release its National Space Policy with an aim for the commercial space sector to capture 10% of the global market supporting 100,000 new jobs and generating £40bn for our economy by 2030. Similarly, Japan also released its New Space Policy with a focus on restoring industry.

When will India take such a stand? When will see the ISRO workhorse turning out to be a formidable ‘cash carriage’ to bring international launch market revenues into India?