Launching satellites is no longer a big deal for ISRO – it needs to set higher goals

We need to set the bar higher for India's space agency. It is among the very best and its successful PSLV launches are no longer big news.

Yesterday, India’s space agency ISRO set a new record by launching 104 satellites from a single launch vehicle. This is about three times what anyone had done before.

Make no mistake – this is a feat made possible by good engineering, a focus on precision and extensive simulations and modeling. The control systems teams at ISRO seem to be getting better and better at what they do. Evidently, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle or PSLV is a dependable launch vehicle, usually referred to by news articles as ISRO’s “workhorse”.

In response, there have been a big round of celebrations online and across the country. Lots of unqualified chest-thumping and proclamations about Indian greatness in engineering and in general. Typically, Indians could not unequivocally call themselves the best after any space-related achievement, because many missions and countries have been there before us. Therefore, the standard narrative was that India may not be the best, but certainly the least expensive and most efficient at getting to space. The “low cost” narrative has reigned supreme.

This time, there is a new twist to the low-cost narrative: that India can be a global leader on launching micro-satellites.

Here’s what the Hindustan Times said about the anticipated launch in its February 15 report:

The real significance of the launch, therefore, lies in the fact that it allows ISRO to test its capabilities for multiple launches of small satellites. This is crucial if India wants to grab a slice of the global market for nano and micro-satellites, which is set to grow close to $3 billion in the next three years. ISRO sources point out that some 3,000 satellites will be ready for launch in the next 10 years for navigation, maritime, surveillance and other space-based applications.

Here’s what The Ken said in its February 15 story:

With Isro planning to launch the PSLV more frequently, the rocket could be well placed to take advantage of the rapidly escalating numbers of small satellites that are looking to get into orbit.

Last year, the PSLV was second only to America’s Atlas V rocket in the number of 1–50kg class small satellites launched, according to the ‘2017 Nano/Microsatellite Market Forecast’ from SpaceWorks Enterprises, a US-based company that prepares assessments of global satellite activity. It predicts that nearly 2,400 such satellites “will require a launch from 2017 through 2023.”

Permit me to be the Grinch on this. Nobody likes damp squibs when others are happily celebrating, but a few points need to be raised.

Source: Memebase
Source: Memebase

Size matters

First, if nanosatellites are the future,  why is ISRO only launching others’ nanosatellites and not designing any of their own? If recent advancements in electronics have indeed made it possible to reduce the size of many satellites, shouldn’t ISRO also do what it can to reduce satellite sizes?

After all, every kilogram of matter that gets transported to the Low Earth Orbit costs several thousand dollars. Of course, not all satellites can be reduced in size. Transponders, high resolution cameras, and many other units still remain large in size and high quality and precision should trump size when they are necessary. Even so.

Second, is the PSLV really cost-effective and competitive? We really have no idea. As I wrote back in 2013:

[W]hen a French scientist was asked just after the 100th ISRO mission launched two French satellites, he remarked that they chose PSLV not because it was cheaper, but because the time slot available was convenient and because it was of comparable quality to other launchers. [Pragati, July 26, 2013]

It is clear that the PSLV is reliable and it is also obvious that ISRO will not get any business if they do not price their services competitively in the global market. But as we learn in Economics 101, price is not the same as cost.

ISRO has never put out detailed reports on how ISRO’s cost per kg to Low-Earth-Orbit compares to other space agencies. To the best of this author’s knowledge, only Space-X and other space agencies are actively trying to reduce the cost of payloads, by having some of the earlier rocket stages return to ground for re-use.

Third, as Gopal N Raj in The Ken notes, while nanosatellites are set to grow exponentially in number, they will not in terms of revenue for ISRO. A few, large satellite launches will still net higher revenues.

Fourth, we need to remember that we do not have a working alternative to the PSLV yet, and we aren’t doing enough space launches. ISRO is a national monopoly, even if it competes with other players globally. And there are signs that ISRO is suffering from the usual problems at the highest level that monopolies tend to face  – lethargy.

There is little evidence that ISRO’s space activities are sufficient for a growing economy like India’s. We need more commercial launches per year, more satellites in space per year (doesn’t matter who launches them), and more scientific missions per year. We need an ISRO with growing ambitions, and after the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission, there appears to be some bureaucratic action, with incremental target settings, and no real moonshot.

ISRO’s many launch vehicles. Only the PSLV is active. GSLV’s are still in early stages of development. Image: Wikimedia.
ISRO’s many launch vehicles. Only the PSLV is active. GSLV’s are still in early stages of development. Image: Wikimedia.

Space without constraints

In fact, the raison d’être of a state-run space programme is to do outrageous things that cannot be done by markets, to go beyond what is commercially feasible. A commercial satellite launch isn’t about going “boldly go where no mortal has gone before” to use Neil deGrasse Tyson’s adaptation of a popular phrase. ISRO needs to focus on the Moon and Mars and beyond, and open up commercial satellite launches to a domestic market.

The positive, long-term societal benefit of “crazy” space exploration is well documented. In an era where private individuals like Elon Musk can aspire to go to Mars, ISRO can aim even higher. (And ask for the budgets it needs.)

Fifth and finally, can we set a higher bar for ISRO? It is certainly a world-class organisation, it is competent and among the very best. This is a little unusual for a country which has to routinely deal with the mediocre. Successful launches of the PSLV are no longer news-worthy, they are to be expected of a competent space agency.

A country that has successfully launched a probe into Martian orbit doesn’t need to giddily celebrate every time we send a tonne of electronics a couple of hundred km above ground.

Your friendly neighbourhood Space-Grinch.

This article first appeared on Indian National Interest.

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