On February 15, the Indian Space Research Organisation launched a rocket that put 104 satellites into orbit around the earth, breaking a world record as it did so. It was a remarkable achievement for India’s space organisation, which has now had 36 consecutively successful launches of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles since 1994.
ISRO has consistently been in the headlines over the last few years for its rapid developments in space technology, including the cheapest Mars mission ever designed and its indigenously built cryogenic engine that will be the first step towards putting heavier loads including humans and large satellites into space.
But how does ISRO stack up against other space organisations, both government and private?
There are two ways to assess this: technological developments and commercial growth.
The Cold War era of intense rivalry between the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics led to a “space race” after the USSR launched Sputnik I, the world’s first satellite, in 1957. The two countries pushed each other to the limits to send ever-larger satellites and finally humans into space and to the moon.
The European Union, Japan, Canada, Russia and the US jointly operate the International Space Station, a habitable artificial satellite. These countries also have the world’s premier space organisations that conduct both research and launches. While the US and Russia have scaled back on human spaceflight, China is still pursuing this technology. It sent its first astronaut into space in 2008. Neither the European Space Agency nor the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency have independently sent humans into space.
Along with these five, India’s is only the sixth space agency in the world to have complete launch facilities, to operate cryogenic engines and to send probes to extraterrestrial bodies.
However, India still has a long way to go. Although it successfully sent an orbiter to Mars in 2013, and was the first country to achieve this on its first attempt, India is only just beginning to harness the potential of its cryogenic engine to launch Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles into space. These vehicles travel into higher orbit than PSLVs and can carry satellites weighing more than 2,000 kilogrammes.
Growing market share
The other parameter to judge ISRO by is by its commercial capabilities. In 2015-’16, the revenue of Antrix, ISRO’s commercial arm, amounted to Rs 230 crore, or only 0.6% of the global market, according to government data shared in the Lok Sabha in July 2016.
ISRO has been working steadily to increase its commercial capabilities, particularly over the last decade. From just nine launches between 1993 and 2006, India has now moved to six launches in a single year as of 2016. Leading government and private space agencies now average around 20 launches each year.
ISRO’s first commercial launch was on a PSLV launched in 1999. The deal was brokered by Antrix. A majority of PSLV payloads since have carried satellites of foreign customers, with Tuesday’s launch taking the number up to 180. Most of these, including 80 of the 104 satellites on PSLV C-37, were miniaturised satellites with a low aggregate weight.
For now, India’s PSLVs can only launch lightweight satellites. Even as late as 2015, India launched some of its heavier telecommunications satellites through a launcher provided by Arianespace, a multinational company that is the world’s leading commercial satellite launch provider.
ISRO will need to commercialise its GSLV launches if it wants to break into the geosynchronous transfer orbit market, which includes larger, more expensive communication satellites that orbit at a fixed position above the earth.
India’s PSLV investment might also pay off in the near future. Heavy satellites might be more lucrative now, but with technological developments in computing, analysts believe that very small satellites, like the ones launched on Tuesday, might actually be the fastest-growing segment in the market in the near future.
Given this, India’s most significant advantage right now is its ability to provide a low-cost alternative to present operators in the lightweight satellite launch market. According to an article in Firstpost, India charges only $15 million for its PSLV launches, aided in part by government subsidies.
By comparison SpaceX, run by private entrepreneur Elon Musk and considered to be among the most competitive in the same segment, will charge $62 million for satellites to be launched in 2018. NASA’s planned missions to send humans to Mars might cost as much as $500 million each once they become regular.
Corrections and clarifications: This article has been edited to include the fact that Canada, not China, is a partner in the International Space Station project.