The rocket that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched successfully from Sriharikota on Monday evening has caught the imagination of the public with sobriquets like ‘Baahubali’ and ‘fat boy’ being used in the media, and projections being made of manned space flight being the next goal. The reality is more sobering.
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Undoubtedly, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) powered by a cryogenic engine is a superb technological achievement for the national space agency. Cryogenic is the most challenging and complex rocket technology, which took close to two decades for ISRO to master.
With the launch of GSLV Mark III, Indian space scientists and engineers can rightly claim that they are good at all types of rocket propulsion systems – solid, liquid and cryogenic. This is the hallmark of a mature space agency.
The GSLV Mark III gives India the necessary capability to launch heavier communication satellites weighing up to five tonnes. Till now, the country was dependent on foreign commercial launchers like Arianespace for the launch of its communication satellites like INSAT and GSAT.
The last GSAT was launched by Arianespace in October 2016 from French Guiana. Foreign launches for ISRO came to a stop on Monday with the launch of GSAT-19, launched by GSLV from Sriharikota. Such capability was the last piece in the ‘self-reliance’ jigsaw puzzle in the space sector.
Fight Not Over for Mark III
Will ISRO be able to take the next leap forward and make GSLV Mark III a commercial rocket like Ariane, and Sriharikota the next French Guiana? It is premature to answer in the affirmative. It will take a few more successful flights for Mark III before it can join the league of commercial rockets like Ariane and Atlas.
Mark III will need at least one more flight to be declared an operational rocket and a few more flights to gain the confidence of foreign customers.
The commercial viability of large rockets like GSLV may be at stake in the future, if the current market trend of constellation of micro and mini satellites (which are more cost-effective and carry less risk) flying in LEOs (low earth orbits) instead of large satellites gains further momentum. In that case, PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) will remain a workhorse for ISRO and the first choice for commercial customers.
There are already successful models, such as Dove constellation, which have used PSLV to launch dozens of nano satellites. Microsatellite constellations are being used for a variety of applications – earth observation, remote sensing, relief and rescue, etc.
Paving Way for a Manned Mission
Then there is also talk of Mark III as the vehicle of choice for a manned space mission. Yes, if and when India decides to send a manned mission, this will be the vehicle.
However, the rocket will have to be ‘man rated’ for it to be able to carry humans into space and several other technologies related to re-entry into earth’s atmosphere will have to be perfected to ensure the safe return of humans to the earth.
In any case, a manned mission is not a stated priority for ISRO. It had made a proposal to the government almost a decade ago but that is yet to be approved.
The Way Ahead
A manned mission and more ambitious inter-planetary missions as well as landing missions to the moon (Chandrayaan II is in the pipeline) will be the next logical steps for ISRO, but much depends on the flow of funds to the space agency.
ISRO and the government will also have to take a call on developing an aerospace industrial infrastructure with private sector participation for faster rollout of rockets and all related paraphernalia.
Commercial launches of satellites should ideally be handled by private players, while ISRO should focus on next generation rockets and scientific projects.
(The writer is a journalist, author and columnist based in New Delhi. He can be reached @dineshcsharma. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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