PARIS — It took the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) 20 years to develop and perfect its GSLV Mark 3 rocket, designed to free India from dependence on foreign rockets to place heavier Indian satellites into orbit.
It took less than an hour after the successful June 5 launch for ISRO officials to begin sketching a future in which India’s launcher goes beyond providing self-sufficiency to become a world-beater on the commercial launch market, capable of besting its U.S. and European competitors.
“Today is a historic day,” ISRO Chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar said after the launch.
The GSLV Mark 3, with the Indian-made cryogenic upper stage, successfully placed India’s GSAT-19 satellite into geostationary transfer orbit after launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Center SHAR on India’s southeast coast.
GSAT-19 India’s first HTS satellite
Weighing 3,136 kilograms, GSAT-19 is India’s first HTS, or high-throughput, satellite, carrying a mixed Ku- and Ka-band payload that will reuse frequencies through the use of spot-beam technology for Internet services.
Built around ISRO’s well-tested I-3K satellite frame, GSAT-19 carries an India-built guidance, navigation and control system, as well as made-in-India lithium-ion batteries.
While still modest when compared to products in service from the United States, Europe and China — and with a designed service life of 10 years versus 15 years for India’s competitors — GSAT-19 is part of India’s steady march to ever-higher satellite performance.
The many ISRO speakers to took to the podium after the launch mentioned HTS capability almost as often as the GSLV’s performance.
K. Siwan, director of ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), said the launch had the twin ambition of demonstrating the GSLV’s performance and preparing the HTS era in India — “essential for the development of this country,” he said.
‘Today we launch our own satellite. Tomorrow we’ll launch U.S. satellites’
ISRO officials, who have spoken of privatizing at least parts of India’s rocket-development sector — an idea that has caused some ISRO employees to worry about their jobs — clearly hope GSLV Mark 3 in the coming years will generate foreign earnings.
ISRO’s PSLV rocket, which at 320,000 kilograms is half the weight of the GSLV Mark-3, is already a steady source of export earnings, specializing in launching small satellites, mostly as secondary payloads riding to orbit on a launch with a larger Indian Earth observation satellite.
The PSLV has confronted U.S. government resistance through an admittedly porous but nonetheless formal ban on its use by U.S. commercial satellites unless a special waiver is granted.
The ban is designed to help struggling designers of small-satellite launch vehicles, who have argued that a state-owned, state-managed Indian launch-vehicle sector presents them with unfair competition.
The same U.S. government pressure may not materialize for heavier satellites, depending on how SpaceX progresses with its explicitly low-cost, partially reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles; how quickly Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin can field its New Glenn rocket; and the future of United Launch Alliance and its Vulcan rocket.
The most immediate impact will be on Europe’s Arianespace commercial-launch provider, which launches almost all of India’s telecommunications satellites.
The contrast between tomorrow’s autonomy and today’s dependence will be visible on June 28, when Arianespace has scheduled the launch of the Indian GSAT-17 telecommunications satellite aboard a heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket. GSAT-17 weighs about 3,400 kilograms.
India’s GSLV Mark 3 remains a medium-lift vehicle compared to U.S., European, Russian and Chinese vehicles. But new satellite technologies including electric propulsion are growing the market for 4,000-kilogram-class satellites. An all-electric design allows a satellite’s owner to put a 6,000-kilogram-class satellite into a 4,000-kilogram package.
P.V. Venkitakrishnan, director of the ISRO Propulsion Research Complex, said after the launch that the GSLV Mark 3 would be able to win international business within a couple of years.
“When this becomes operational, definitely in a couple of years, India will become the focus of launching even American satellites,” Venkitakrishan said after the June 5 launch, adding that just about all GSLV Mark 3 components are Indian-made. “This is a cheaper buy. We are always making something cheaper than others can make it. We have the technology here.”