In February, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) made world headlines by using a polar launch vehicle to slingshot a record 104 satellites into orbit. That established it as the go-to launch service provider for developers of small satellites, a market which can only grow at exponential speed. Now, the launch of the geosynchronous launch vehicle GSLV Mk-III has catapulted it into the league of big hitters. The launch vehicle, which includes a completely indigenous cryogenic motor, placed India’s heaviest satellite, GSAT-19, in a transfer orbit. The two achievements of 2017 place ISRO in a very special position in the space race.
When the Cold War fired the starter’s gun, the race was dominated by prestige projects, like sending men into space and to the moon, funded by governments to demonstrate technological supremacy. But now, the commercialisation of space is imminent, private players have entered the fray and the race is about establishing a technological presence and facilities in orbit and on the less forbidding planets, like Mars. ISRO’s biggest GSLV has launched a 3,200 kg satellite into geosynchronous orbit, but can accommodate 800 kg more. Besides, it can send a payload of eight tonnes to low earth orbit, the preferred band for most satellites and all space stations.
Therefore, ISRO can partially pay its way with cheap multiple launchers, though this market may soon be dominated by reusable vehicles operated by entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. It can also provide launch services to makers of heavy satellites, and pursue its own big projects, like manned flight, space stations and lunar and planetary missions bigger than Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan. It is in the enviable position of reaching for the stars with fiscal prudence. Perhaps no other national space mission currently has this capability, and it will make a difference to India’s prospects in space.