Originally Published 2013-06-29 00:00:00 Published on Jun 29, 2013
India's own satellite-based navigation system, similar to the well-known American Global Positioning System (GPS), is being readied. The first satellite of the seven satellite constellation is scheduled to be launched on July 1 from Sriharikota.
IRNSS: India's Own Satellite Navigation System
India's own satellite-based navigation system, similar to the well-known American Global Positioning System (GPS), is being readied. The first satellite of the seven satellite constellation is to be launched on July 01, 2013 aboard a XL-size Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) - C22 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre near Sriharikota. The Indian system is called the IRNSS for 'Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System'. Previously, PSLV XLs were used for some of the other important missions, including Chandrayaan-1 and RISAT-1.

The American GPS-system is of much larger scale covering the entire globe using 24 satellites in addition to several networked ground stations. IRNSS, on the other hand, is being undertaken on a much smaller scale. The Indian system is intended as an independent regional system providing "position accuracy better than 10m over India and the region extending about 1500 kms around India."

The IRNSS, with a total of seven satellites, placed at a height of about 36,000 kms, and using two microwave frequency bands, L5 and S, will relay information 24x7 for two types of services: Standard Positioning Service (SPS) for general use and Restricted Service (RS) meant for special authorised users - military and other government actors. Three satellites will be placed in the geostationary equatorial orbit, matching earth's rotation and the other four (pair of two) will be placed in two inclined geosynchronous orbits. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman K Radhakrishnan says (according to The Hindu) that the coverage, if necessary, could be improved with an addition of four more satellites.

Cost has been an important consideration. For nine years, the ISRO has been exploring ways to develop a navigation system for India. The IRNSS project, involving a cost of Rs. 1,420 crores, was approved by the government in June 2006.

The significance of IRNSS cannot be underplayed. Navigation systems, once used by the most powerful militaries around the world, are also being used by civilians through their smart phones. In addition, many militaries are using them for a wide range of applications. India's ability to develop its own system without having to rely on any external source will go a long way in securing itself. An ISRO official has said that "It will be our own system. It will make us independent in the area of navigation. At the moment we depend on US' GPS or Russia's GLONASS system. They can block signals anytime if they want."

The US-managed GPS became available for large-scale use a decade ago or so, although the importance of location precision technologies in the military arena with an emphasis on accumulating hard power has prompted many countries, particularly in Asia, to develop their own versions of GPS and other space-based navigation systems. Some of the proven and more popular systems include the Chinese Beidou, Russian Glonass and Japanese Quazi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) that is making slow progress.

China's Beidou satellite navigation system, that launched its first navigation satellite in 2000, plans to have a full global coverage by 2020. China has already launched 16 satellites and four experimental ones onto space as part of the Beidou system. Ye Peijian, chief commander of Chang'e-3, China's lunar probe mission, recently stated that Beidou will have an additional 40 satellites, enhancing the coverage capabilities.

In spite of the sovereignty and territorial disputes, including recent flare-ups with several Southeast Asian countries, China has been successful in selling its system in many countries in the region. Among other countries, Thailand, Laos and Brunei have already subscribed to the Beidou navigation system. Pakistan and Sri Lanka in South Asia have also opted for the Chinese navigation system.

In terms of the Chinese domestic market, growth for the Beidou system has been at a slow pace. By 2015, China expects to capture a domestic market share of 15-20 per cent, predicted to go up to 70-80 per cent by 2020. The forecast is that it potentially will have a market worth 22 bn yuan. Meanwhile, China has plans to create strategic industries around the navigation system, evincing interest among the business community to invest big time in this area. The Chinese central government is expected to make a total investment of 7 bn yuan, and according to official figures, it has already invested 3.5 bn yuan to strengthen industry presence in the space arena. China foresees that with the entry of industry, Beidou system will spur economic growth in a big way.

Russia's GLONASS was a response to the US' GPS, and the GLONASS is run by Russia's space forces. It has a 24 satellite-constellation, with 21 in operation and 3 as back-ups. Placed at an altitude of 19,000 km, each of the satellites orbit the earth in 11 hours and 15 minutes. The satellites are positioned in a manner to allow at least five satellites to be in view at any given time. India entered into a pact with Russia on satellite navigation collaboration way back in 2005 although it took them another six years to sign an agreement for India to receive military signals from Russia. In fact, though there have been several agreements signed in this regard, the Russian government has been unwilling to part with "precision codes" (which provides data to navigate up to one metre).

Japan is set to be making progress with a few important decisions taken this year. Japan is developing the navigation system in order to enhance the GPS navigation signals and data availability in the Asia-Pacific region. Speaking to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, Japanese space officials are believed to have said that currently, data is available only 90 per cent of the time in Japan whereas the QZSS will improve it to a 99.8 per cent level, in addition to improving the accuracy.

The first Quazi-Zenith satellite, Michibiki, was launched on September 11, 2010. Earlier in 2013, the Cabinet Office decided to expand the Japanese satellite system, ordering an addition of three satellites, making it a four-satellite constellation. The government sanctioned a $526 mn contract with Mitsubishi Electric for building the additional satellites, to be launched by 2017. Two will be positioned in inclined orbits, whereas a third one will be placed at geostationary equatorial orbit. The government has reportedly sanctioned another contract worth $1.2 bn, with "a special-purpose company led by NEC Corp." This contract obligates NEC Corp. to operate QZSS for 15 years, including design, verification and maintenance of the ground system for the QZSS. Japan has plans to invest in seven satellites by the next decade although the first four constellation system is set to be in operation by 2018.

Given the growing importance of location data for a variety of purposes including in the civilian, disaster management and military domain, India cannot be lagging behind. A decision by the ISRO to involve Indian industry in developing communication satellites and PSLVs will lighten the burden on the ISRO while helping to refocus their attention on some big science projects and remote sensing satellites. This move will also step up the process of establishing a much-needed strategic industry around outer space.

(Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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