Expert Speak Space Tracker
Published on Nov 23, 2022 Updated 25 Days ago
The entry of commercial enterprises or other state-owned enterprises can help augment the capacities of Indian space launch vehicle technology
GSLV Mk III: The Indian military and civilian enterprise deserve more On October 21, 2022 36 OneWeb satellites were launched from aboard the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark-III (GSLV Mk III) dedicated to the provision of broadband internet services. The launch evoked euphoria across India. However, there is simply no credible reason for the latest GSLV Mk III mission to trigger such a joyous celebration. Firstly, the launch and injection using the ISRO cryogenic engine in the final stage of OneWeb payloads into a circular Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at approximately 600 kilometres using the GSLV Mk-III is ultimately a small feat. Second, this is only the third successful launch of the GSLV MkIII and now called the Launch Vehicle Mark-3 (LVM-3), which earlier launched an approximately 4 tonne payload as part of the Chandrayaan-2 lunar mission and before that successfully launched of the GSAT-19 satellite into GTO in 2017. The greater test for the ISRO’s LVM-3 is to complete more successful launches not just to LEO, but also communications satellites to Geo Transfer Orbit (GTO). Meeting this requirement is the key challenge facing the Indian space agency. More generally, the ISRO has undertaken 10 launches of the GSLV, which off course is a distinct launch vehicle from the LVM-3. India’s general effort with the GSLV suffers from a very patchy record. The latter has had four failures from 14 launches and from the 10 launches that were successful, the first two were mainly developmental flights carrying experimental satellite payloads. The first of these developmental launches happened 21 years ago, but ISRO is yet to master this launch technology fully and convincingly.

The greater test for the ISRO’s LVM-3 is to complete more successful launches not just to LEO, but also communications satellites to Geo Transfer Orbit (GTO).

The ISRO has approached the development of the GSLV, especially its cryogenic upper stage with incremental improvements in its payload launch capabilities. The launch vehicle is still in its infancy despite years of investment and its capacity to carry and inject heavier payloads into high earth orbit with consistent success is still a distant goal. One may discount the urgency for developing a GSLV capability when the French-built Arianne heavy-lift rockets to launch the Indian space agency’s larger satellite payloads have served India’s needs well. However, relying on the French heavy space launch vehicle cannot be the outcome in the long term for either India’s defence, civilian and commercial needs nor does it serve the aspirations of India’s premier space agency, which has future unmanned and manned missions to the moon as well as deep space missions.

Slow progress with the GSLV

Successfully launching heavy payloads into high earth orbits that run into several tonnes has military benefits. The latest example is the SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Put aside the Falcon Heavy rocket, which in any case is a long shot for India to match, even the Chinese Long March launch vehicles have proved very difficult to match for the ISRO. The Chinese Long March series are a visible demonstration and example of the Chinese progressing more rapidly than India in the development of geosynchronous launch vehicle. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) took roughly 14 years since its first satellite launch in 1970 to launch its first geostationary satellite in April 1984 and since then launched multiple heavy satellites into GTO. One factor is the absence of competition within the Indian space launch industry, notwithstanding the emergence of a nascent space start-up ecosystem in recent years, such as the latest launch of a suborbital rocket called Vikram-S with payloads inserted in to a low inclination orbit built by the Hyderabad-based space start-up Skyroot from the ISRO’s Sriharikota spaceport visibly demonstrated, the time to develop an independent GSLV capability has been far too protracted. The possession of an independent geosynchronous launch capability that can reliably launch national security or defence satellites brings flexibility and speed to despatch large payloads when needed. Private enterprises in the space sector should have a key role to play in augmenting the capacities of Indian space launch vehicle technology. Commercial enterprise in the space sector is recognised world over, which India must seek to emulate as the National Defense Strategy of the United States 2022 observes emphatically: “We will increase collaboration with the private sector in priority areas, especially with the commercial space industry, leveraging its technological advancements and entrepreneurial spirit to enable new capabilities.”

Private enterprises in the space sector should have a key role to play in augmenting the capacities of Indian space launch vehicle technology.

Exploiting the Indian private sector’s dynamism is still at an incipient stage in India. Even if we reject the importance of competition in the domain of launch vehicle development, the ISRO’ development effort with the GSLV has been very slow, especially when compared to the Chinese space programme. After all, even the Long March (LM) family of space launch vehicles is developed and operated by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which is a state-owned enterprise, so why should ISRO be exposed to the competition? Lest we forget within the Chinese launch vehicle programme there is competition too. For instance, the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST) and the China Academy Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) both vie with each other to produce the LM series of space rockets. Both SAST and CALT are a part of China Aerospace and Science Technology Corporation (CASC), which is the PRC’s primary space contractor. However, despite ISRO also being a state-owned enterprise and the primary developer of space launch vehicle technology for the Indian space programme, it has not managed to match or emulate its Chinese counterpart because it faces no competition from any other state-owned space Research and Development (R&D) or manufacturing entity making its heavy launch vehicle programme open-ended. The glacial development trajectory of heavy launch vehicles by the Indian space agency geared for launching and injecting payloads in the 4-5 tonne category and above into Geo Transfer Orbit (GTO) remains a chink in the space programme. Whereas China with its LM 5 can and has placed in GTO 14,000 kilogramme payloads. The LM 5B has helped the PRC in executing its interplanetary mission Tianwen-1 and its Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission. Beyond the national security and defence imperative, the ISRO’s lunar and Mars missions as well as long-term deep space missions will need powerful rockets making their development all the more urgent.
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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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