Expert Speak Space Tracker
Published on Dec 09, 2019
ISRO’s capacity challenges: How should we assess ISRO’s space missions?

Assessing Indian space missions requires scrutiny following statements and claims made by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). An ISRO, spokesperson recently observed the space agency is not a “production house”, which can be judged exclusively by the number satellites it places in orbit. Two related issues arise from the claim that ISRO is meeting all its planned space mission requirements and secondly should it even be expected to meet demands that are unrealistic, given its existing scientific, technological, infrastructure and budgetary constraints launching significantly more satellites to meet not just civilian and commercial needs, but equally servicing military requirements. Given that, it is the single agency in the country responsible for building spacecraft civilian, commercial and military purposes, the temptation or attraction to inflating the number of missions it is undertaking is understandable given its burden, yet problematic at least when measured by international standards. Consequently, the agency’s criteria and definition for assessing its own performance is expansive covering multiple scientific and technological missions it pursues. For instance, the ISRO measures launch vehicle mission and satellite orbital injection as two separate missions. This is unusual and reasonable to conclude inaccurate, as it is hard to think of any other space agency of a major space-faring country doing the same. Indeed, the ISRO’s definition of missions actually means two separates tasks or phases of a mission. The launch vehicle igniting, completing a successful powered flight and injecting satellite payloads into their designated orbits comprises one phase (not to be confused with the stages of a Polar Satellite Space Launch Vehicle (PSLV)) and thereafter the spacecraft themselves performing optimally ranging from remote sensing to communications.

As opposed to ISRO, how do other major space powers define a mission? Take the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’ assessment of a mission is variant with the way ISRO defines a mission based on the views expressed by its spokespersons. Generally, for NASA the life cycle of a mission consists of a Pre-Phase A that involves a conceptual study. Phase A consists of a Preliminary Analysis and Phase B consists of reviewing the system’ requirements, design and non-advocate view, phase C&D comprises design, development, readiness and flight tests and the final Phase E consists of the actual operational segment of mission covering both primary and extended, which in NASA terminology called Mission Operations (MO) and Data Analysis (DA). What we are concerned here with is the final Phase E or the MO and DA. Let us consider NASA’s interplanetary or deep space mission, which comprises four phases or rather sub-phases: the Launch phase, the Cruise Phase, the Encounter Phase and the final extended operations phase, which are in entirely a function of the spacecraft’ technical health and duration of the overall mission.

  Indeed, the Indian space agency’ internal assessment of the Chandrayaan- 1, lunar mission and its first deep space mission launched in October 2008 observed: “The primary science objective of the mission was to prepare a three dimensional atlas of both near and far side of the Moon and to conduct chemical and mineralogical mapping of the entire lunar surface with high spatial resolution. The major discovery of the Chandrayaan-1 mission is the detection of water (H2O) and hydroxyl (OH) on the lunar surface.  The data also revealed their enhanced abundance towards the polar region.” Apart from water, the ISRO detected the presence of several minerals such as Titanium, Calcium, Aluminium and Magnesium. To any lay person, it may seem obvious, the Chandrayaan orbiter satellite consisting of various instruments to map and execute tests itself was not a mission, but a technological artefact designed to execute a mission, which included discovering water and other mineral resources on the moon. Thus, we are faced with a serious anomaly in ISRO’s definition of missions. Given that the Chandrayaan –I’ primary mission was to understand the geography of the moon and mineral content on the lunar landscape, how does it square with the agency quaint and latest attempt to obscure the definition of a space mission? It invites the question that ISRO has made an erroneous and some might deem a deliberately misleading assertion in declaring launch vehicle operations and satellite operations as two independent missions in a quest to exaggerate the quantitative performance of the agency. However, the ISRO has gone even farther for the latest Chandrayaan-2 lunar mission with an ISRO official categorically stating, “This year’s Chandrayaan-2 alone equalled five or six missions, given its complex elements such as an orbiter, a lander, a rover and a launch vehicle. Which is why such numbers are misleading.” A satellite cannot go into near or outer space without a launch vehicle. In a nutshell, launch vehicle and satellite’s operations are only phases of a mission and mission objectives as we have already noted are variable

In the long run whatever ISRO’ motives might be in making exaggerated claims about the number of missions it undertakes, the agency’ problems are deeper and likely to confront it in two forms. The first is simply the fact that it has deficit issues both in technical capacity and manpower placing constraints on its production strength. As one study in 2015 had incisively stated redressing the supply and demand problem requires the agency divesting itself of “…larger segments of production requirement to industry would be the right answer.” Small satellites development and production should be the first target of de-control and divestiture.

The second challenge confronting ISRO is foreign competition particularly for the launch of small satellites, which is an expanding market. The Elon Musk owned SpaceX Falcon 9 is widely considered a serious potential threat to ISRO’s workhorse the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The PSLV a highly reliable launch vehicle has provided cost effective rideshare launches to small satellite makers. However, with the emergence of a highly reliable Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) in the form Falcon 9, it is in ISRO’s best interest, albeit demanding, to divest control of Research and Development (R&D), production and pave the way for commercialization of small satellites by the private sector. It would also free up resources of the agency to focus its R&D on strengthening SLV development enabling it to face the competition offered by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for rideshare launches. The ISRO needs to be well advised against making syllogistic claims about its missions, because it does neither the agency nor the Indian public any good.

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Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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