Occasional PapersPublished on Apr 04, 2015 PDF Download
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India’s Small Satellite Mission: Time for the Next Leap Forward

  • Narayan Prasad Nagendra

    The paper analyses small satellite activities within India in various institutions and identifies the opportunities as well as the gaps.

Executive Summary

India has always given importance to the development of space technology for peaceful purposes. The Indian space programme is Ione of the biggest national space programmes in the world, which has transitioned from its purely research orientation in the 1960s to a commercial orientation in the 1990s. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), in its early years, developed small satellites (for example, the Rohini satellite series) which carried out several scientific experiments. Since then, the requirement of space-based citizen services has led ISRO to build larger satellite systems such as the IRS (Indian Remote Sensing), the INSAT (Indian National Satellite System) and the IRNSS (Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System) for mapping, navigation, meteorology, communications, among other services.

This paper explores the extent of proliferation of small satellite related activities in India. Although satellites below 1,000 kg are generally referred to as small satellites, the paper considers only satellite platforms with a mass of less than 150 kg, due to their proliferation across the world in the past decade. An effort has been made to draw parallels from across the globe at various levels in the current use of small satellite platforms, be it in academia, civilian space agencies, industries or defence establishments.

The study indicates that several small satellite projects at Indian universities have been delayed due to lack of integration into academic activities/curriculum, and the absence of reasonable employment for graduating students who lead the projects. One of the main hurdles in running such academic missions in India is the lack of a programmatic approach to the development of small satellites. Most academic missions in India face this critical hurdle due to the lack of a policy for reasonable employment within the small satellite programme or industries based on such programmes. Universities need to consider providing credits to students working on small satellite projects. There is a need to embed practical education into academic grading which would encourage more students to join such projects. A case has also been made for a dedicated funding model for the development of small satellites at academic institutes in the country, which can be led by a federal department such as the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). Parallels have been drawn to showcase the necessity of encouraging the development of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) which build on the intellectual property generated by such programmes. There is a need not just for incubation/office support, but also for establishing a space systems laboratory that can work independently and is capable of delivering turnkey solutions.

The Indian Mini Satellite (IMS) satellite series was envisaged by ISRO as a platform for carrying payloads for earth observation, space science research, atmosphere and ocean related studies. The stated objective was to develop advanced miniaturised technologies to achieve the performance of IRS class satellites on miniaturised platforms. Although the bus has capabilities for producing distributed missions, it has not found any traction due to the lack of a dedicated programme on small satellites. A comparison with other space agencies including NASA, ESA and JAXA (the space agencies of the US, Europe and Japan) has
been drawn to present the case for small satellite platforms which have been used as testing grounds for innovative science and engineering. A case has been made for a dedicated programme on small satellites with a transparent timescale which can spur interest in academia and industry to explore several mission avenues of research and commerce.

Although several tech transfer initiatives have been successful, the Indian space programme, unlike some of its developed country counterparts across the globe, has not seen the emergence of turnkey solution providers in the satellite segment. There is a fundamental need for public-private partnership mechanisms to establish an environment to provide turnkey solutions within the country. Based on such initiatives, the current space industry in India can emerge as an integrator, which would allow ISRO to play the role of vendor/facilitator to users for turnkey missions. The study presents a case for small satellites to be effective platforms to create umbrella programmes (e.g. Hodoyoshi in Japan, Myriade in France) which will allow the industry to play turnkey solutions provider under the guidance of the established space programme. This will benefit the Indian space industry, enabling it to leverage Indian labour and material cost advantages to provide space technology/services globally.

The Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap of the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff, Ministry of Defence, decides in part the space based requirements of the armed forces. Such military services/operations take longer if pursued through ISRO, which has the burden of delivering civilian services as well. Distribution/separation of civilian space interests and military space interests has been in force in the launch programmes, and the same in further development of the space segment will enable the armed forces to leapfrog ahead. Due to the lack of a dedicated space based defence programme in the country, the armed forces have to rely on ISRO, a civilian organisation with a clear mandate to exploit the civilian/societal benefits of outer space. A dedicated programme within the armed forces would complement ISRO’s satellites and would offer the armed forces more options in integrating the dedicated military satellites into the service of specific operations/applications more smoothly. This is also imperative for autonomy in rapid development and deployment; it is better for data and operational security. Overviews of small satellite based missions representative of security/military interests have been presented.

The present work looks at the current state of space activities within India at various institutions and identifies the opportunities alongside the gaps. Specific conclusions and recommendations have been made that can not only impact the current state of development and usage of small satellite platforms/activities, but can also fundamentally change the approach to development of missions, considering the specific interests of each of these various institutions.

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Narayan Prasad Nagendra

Narayan Prasad Nagendra

Narayan Prasad Nagendra is an Erasmus Mundus Space Master graduate and an EGIDE scholar with a Master in Space Technology Sweden. Narayan also has a ...

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Narayan Prasad Nagendra

Narayan Prasad Nagendra