Into new orbits

After the launch of its first navigation satellite, what next for India’s space programme?

On July 1, India’s space agency launched its first dedicated navigation satellite. Over the next three years, it plans to launch six such satellites to develop an Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS). This satellite system would be the equivalent, albeit on a smaller scale, of the American global positioning system, Russia’s global navigation satellite system, China’s BeiDou system, and Europe’s Galileo satellites.

What are the next frontiers for India’s space programme? Should it focus on building fleets of satellites, sending probes to the moon and Mars, or human space flight? An optimal space strategy would involve a combination of economic, scientific and strategic missions. Still, India will have to cross important technological thresholds, allocate sufficient resources and channel these in the right proportion to realise this strategy.

India’s space agency conducts two main activities: it builds satellites used for earth observation, communications, meteorology and now navigation, and it builds the rockets to launch these satellites. Its reliable Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which has had 22 successful flights since the late 1990s, can carry one-tonne earth observation satellites to low-earth-orbit (LEO). Images from these satellites have found useful economic applications in areas ranging from agricultural and environmental monitoring to geology and urban planning. The PSLV also carries other payloads — an upgraded PSLV launched the IRNSS satellite, and earlier, in 2008, launched India’s lunar orbiter.

India’s more powerful Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) has been less successful, having failed four of its seven flights between 2001 and 2010. The GSLV uses the PSLV’s first two stages and has a cryogenic engine, initially built by Russia and now built by India, in its third stage. It can carry four-tonne payloads to LEO or two-tonne communication satellites to a higher geostationary earth orbit (GEO). Its successor, the GSLV Mark 3, will be able to lift four-tonne communication satellites, capable of carrying a larger number of transponders and facilitating a greater volume of communications, to a GEO. Thus, India’s main technological challenge in the coming years is to perfect the GSLV and GSLV Mark 3. Until these rockets are proven, India will have to launch its heavier communication satellites aboard European Ariane rockets.

… contd.

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