Sky is the limit

By Venkatachari Jagannathan | 08 May 2001

The date18 April 2001 will be etched in golden letters in the annals of Indian Space Research Organisation (IRSO), for at 3.43 p.m. on that day the country’s first Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) roared into the sky.

The mission was not only to place a GSAT-1 communication satellite on the geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), but also to put the Indian space industry amongst the elite league – the league of nations that possess the geosynchronous satellite launching facility. The others in the field are the US, Russia, France, Japan and China. The achievement has huge commercial implications, both in terms of cost savings and revenue generation, for the nation.

Though the countdown for the GSLV launch started 58 hours before the actual take off, the air at Shar Centre, Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, on the D-day was charged with excitement. Twelve minutes before the take off, when the Automatic Launch Sequence (ALS) took over, officials in the control room were staring at their computer screens.

Like an anxious husband outside the labour ward awaiting the arrival of his ‘bundle of joy’, ISRO scientists and officials were all tensed up as the GSLV, conceived ten years ago, was about to be ‘delivered’.

At the count of 4.6 seconds, the rocket’s four liquid propellant strap-on stages, each carrying 40 tons propellant, were ignited. After checking the thrust pressure of the strap-on motors, the hold system was released and the 401-tonne, 49-metre-tall GSLV lifted itself and the nation to glory.

The smooth launch gave the much-needed relief to tense scientists and officials who started to applaud and back-slapping. Fresh in their memory was the aborted mission of 28th March. (See related story, The aborted mission).

Seventeen minutes after the take off, GSLV delivered GSAT-1, a communication satellite, over Indonesia at an altitude of 202 km about 5,000 km from the launch pad. (See a related story, The historic flight).

"It were the longest 17 minutes in our lives," commented a wet-eyed Dr. K. Kasturirangan, chairman, ISRO. The feeling was shared not only by him and his colleagues but also by scores of journalists who were present at the Brahmprakash Hall, Shar Centre, to record the historic flight.

It would have been a copybook launch but for a slight deviation in the path. "The deviation from the original path is very minimal – around 1 km – and the course correction will be made soon," remarked a beaming Dr. Kasturirangan.

The planned GTO is a highly elliptical orbit with a perigree (close to the earth) of 180 km and the apogee (farthest from the earth) of 35,975 km. The satellite was placed in an orbit of 181 km and 32,051 km apogee with the orbit inclination of 19.2 degrees with respect to the equator. "The variance is minimal and is expected in this kind of flights," assures an official.

According to them, fuel on board the satellite will be used for course correction. The orbital corrections to place the satellite from GTO to its final geostationary orbit at 36,000 km will be done using on board apogee motor and deployment of its appendages like solar array, solar sail and antenna will be done in a week’s time.

The only hitch is that the usage of on-board fuel would reduce the life of the satellites. However, the positive aspect is that the flight in effect validates the various systems that are inside the vehicle. "It will take 3-6 hours to analyse the performance of each system," adds Mr. R.V. Perumal, mission director, soon after the launch.

GSAT-1, carrying 3-C bank transponders and one S band transponder, will be used for conducting communication experiments like digital audio broadcast, internet services and compressed digital TV transmission. New spacecraft elements like improved reaction control thrusters, fast recovery star sensors and head pipe radiator panels are also being tested on this satellite.

Toward realisation of Rs.1,400-crore dream

It was the vision of Dr.Vikram Sarabhai that India should develop GSLV capability. The realisation of the dream proceeded over the years at a steady pace. (See related story, India’s launch attempts).

The development of Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) enabled India to place Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites into polar orbit. The second operational flight in May 1999 saw India entering into the global satellite launch industry. The rocket placed two foreign satellites – KITSAT, Korea and DLR- TUBSAT, Germany – along with the nations’ IRS-P4 for an undisclosed figure.

The Rs. 1,400-crore GSLV project was initiated in 1990. The total project includes three flights, preparation of launch pad, etc. amongst other things. The existing launch pad had to be modified to suit GSLV launch at a cost of Rs. 150 crore and GSLV rocket and the GSAT-1 accounting for similar amount.

With the country planning a series of launches, a second launch pad at a project cost of Rs.289 crore is underway and is expected to be ready by next December. The successful completion of two GSLV developmental flights will make the project operational. Efforts for the second mission have already started with ISRO processing the hardware needs.

Though the payload of the first flight is 1,540 kg, steps are on to improve it further upto 2,000 kg and above in two to three year’s time. In the third stage of the project, a payload capacity of 3,000-3,500 kg is being aimed at.

Improvements in the payload capacity will enable India to launch its INSAT satellites on its own instead of paying fancy sums to others.

Besides this, the GSLV that took-off recently has several firsts to its credit apart from the cryogenic stage. It is the first GSLV to have liquid strap-on stages, 3.4m heat shield compared with 3.2 m in PSLV and the vented inter-stage between first and second stage. Except for the cryogenic stage, all other systems of the GSLV were developed by around 250 Indian
industries, both public and private sector put together.

An attempt to indigenise the cryogenic technology, currently imported from Russia, is underway. The project called Cryogenic Upper Stage Project (CUSP) conducted the first in a series of tests of an indigenous engine last February for 15 seconds with further tests on schedule later. In the GSLV rocket, the cryogenic stage had 12.5 tonne fuel with a capacity to burn for about 750 seconds.

Prospects to earn

For India does the launch of the GSLV mean that ISRO will be earning attractive sums launching satellites? Well it may not seem so, as many of the countries that design satellites also have launch facilities.

"More than earning revenues by offering our launch services, the immediate gain is the cost savings by being self reliant," opines Mr. G. Madhavan Nair, director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram. According to him, an average cost to transport a satellite works out to $25,000 per km.

"With GSLV, we will be saving around $5,000 per km," he remarks. Considering two ambitious launches every year, the saving will work out substantially, adds Mr. K.S. Sastri, deputy director with the centre.

But what is the global market size for satellite launch services? A straight answer to that question is not available. It is difficult to put a figure on that as launch charges depend on the weight of the satellite, the distance it has to be carried and also the launch programmes of different countries.

Nevertheless the first attempt to earn from satellite launches was made by India in May 1999 by sending up a Korean and German satellites in PSLV.

A satellite BIRD for German space agency DLR and another PROBA of Belgian company are the satellite launch contracts that the country has sewn up. These will be sent up along with India’s TES satellite on board of PSLV in 2001-02. PSLV will be used for geosynchronous satellite mission and first such mission will be the launch of METAT – a meteorological satellite – in 2002.

But if India wants to be a serious contender in the global satellite launch industry, it should
improve the rocket’s payload capacity to sling heavy communication satellites. The world has advanced to converting offshore oil rigs into launch pads.

However, in order to gain some foothold in the global satellite launch industry, ISRO has signed a deal with Arianespace, France. As per the deal, any order received by ISRO/Arianespace for the launch of micro-satellite launch will be executed by the one that can send up the satellite first.

But satellite pictures and remote sensing data taken by the IRS are in good demand in the global market. The marketing arm of the department of space, the Bangalore-based Antrix Corporation, earns sizeable revenue from this activity. For the year 2000-2001, the company clocked revenues of Rs. 30 crore.

Antrix Corporation continues to impart considerable thrust towards marketing of remote sensing data. The company has a marketing partnership with Space Imaging, USA. While stations located at Norman and Alaska (USA), Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Korea, Thailand, Ecuador, Abu Dhabi receive IRS data, stations at Argentina, Gabon and Brazil have shown interest for IRS access.

Proposals are to extend IRS ground station support to China and Myanmar are also on the anvil. Apart from promoting the establishment of a network of international stations and the sale of IRS data products, Antrix Corporation has also been promoting the market for high-resolution data products from foreign satellites.

The company has also supplied satellite components – beryllium shaft and assembly, pressure transducers, solar wing actuators assembly and hinges, magnetic torquer rods, fill and drain valves, and subsystems, etc. – to major spacecraft/satellite manufacturers with the help of various ISRO centres. Apart from this, the contracts with national agencies for the design, fabrication, supply and installation of telemetry antennae are proceeding smoothly.

In addition to this, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) has also been signed with the Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) for collaboration to build communication satellite transponder capacity for use in all satellite-based service, as well as, marketing to service providers.

While basking under GSLV’s success will continue for some more time, ISRO scientists have their agenda full with a series of launches till 2004. "Our ambition is to send up at least two satellites every year," says Mr. Sastri. As per the current schedule, ISRO has planned around 18 launches before 2004.

Apart from the third PSLV flight planned for the current year, the other launches that have been
budgeted during the next few years are IRS-P5 (Cartosat) and IRS-P6 (Resourcesat) at an outlay of Rs. 248.49 crore and Rs.141.58 crore respectively.

GSAT-1, GSAT-2 and 3 will be flown on the initial developmental flights of GSLV at an outlay of Rs.31.15 crore and Rs. 48.50 crore respectively. Also a provision has been made in the IX plan for taking up work related to IRS-II (Cartosat-2) to the tune of Rs.216.73 crore.

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