|Gp Capt Ajay Lele||Published: May 2017|
New Delhi. On May 5, 2017, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully launched the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-F09) carrying a satellite called GSAT-9 or the South Asia satellite. Technologically, this was just a routine launch for ISRO but, for India, this launch carried geopolitical significance, a milestone towards strengthening good relations with neighbours.
About three years back, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had suggested to ISRO scientists to develop a satellite for regional connectivity to benefit the entire South Asia region in its economic development. Then, in November 2014, while speaking at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) forum, he formally made this offer to their heads of State/ Governments. Except Pakistan, all the other seven countries happily agreed to take advantage of the Indian offer.
Significantly, India launched this 2,500 kg satellite using cryogenic technology, and more significantly, ISRO will launch a heavier payload of 4,000 kg (four tons) for the first time in June using cryogenic propulsion. So far, India has launched four satellites using this technology, mostly developed through indigenous effort, but with limited payloads. There are plans now on to 6,000 kg (six tons).
SAARC was established in 1985 with eight members namely, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka with their key focus on economic and social development issues. Ever since, SAARC has evolved as a major multilateral group in the region engaging itself in various areas of cooperation including science and technology.
SAARC Areas of Cooperation and India’s Space Effort
Various important areas of cooperation include environment, energy, education, and media. In the areas of science and technology cooperation, SAARC has established a Meteorological Research Centre (SMRC) in 1995. It undertakes collective research in meteorology in the SAARC region. This region has significant dependence on agricultural and obviously, engagement in such type of research projects has both social and economic implications.
India has been making investments in space technologies since the 1960s to meet its connectivity requirements for education, communications, radio and television etc. Now, by launching a satellite for South Asia, India is trying to ensure that the entire region gets benefited as the Government rightly believes that the region needs strong and common foundations for economic prosperity for all.
Amongst the SAARC member states, India is the only space faring nation (a country which can undertake rocket launches for putting satellites in the space) with several of its satellites operating in various orbits.
What is South Asia Satellite?
The recent South Asia Satellite, called GSAT 9, is a communication satellite which has successfully been placed in its designated geostationary orbit, and is expected to have a life of 12 years.
It would provide various communication applications in Ku-band with coverage over South Asian countries. The onboard Ku-band transponders have utility particularly for DTH (Direct To Home) television services. This satellite would also assist the South Asian states towards mapping of their natural resources, establishing IT connectivity in the fields of tele-education and tele-medicine. For the developing countries of South Asia, the majority of whose people do not have access to adequate education, medical and some other basic facilities, the connectivity through this satellite could prove to be a boon.
Notably, and appropriately, just after the South Asia Satellite was launched, Mr Modi engaged in video conference with various leaders of SAARC nations including Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, Bangladesh Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina, Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen, Nepal Prime Minister Prachanda and Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena. Through this video-conference, these leaders thanked the Indian government for this initiative, which directly demonstrated the relevance of satellite technology itself.
Having understood the importance of various technologies for national growth, since independence, India has been making significant investments in various sectors and space has been high on the agenda since 1962. ISRO, set up in 1969, has significant plans.
Today, ISRO is working not only on projects of scientific and social significance but also those of strategic importance. For the Indian armed forces for instance, it has already launched a satellite called GSAT 7, which is an exclusive satellite for the Indian Navy. ISRO is scheduled to launch satellites for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Army in the near future.
Notably again, ISRO satellites now can provide sub-meter resolution imagery.
India’s Cartosat series of satellites are expected to have more additions in the future and that would help the armed forces with almost real-time reconnaissance inputs in coming years. ISRO has also placed the required seven satellites for a navigational network, and it is expected to shortly provide appropriate information to both military and civilian services.
India’s Launch Limitations for Heavy Satellites
While India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is a highly successful and cost-effective launcher for small satellites up to 2,000 kg, India has been dependent upon foreign countries, namely France, for launching heavier satellites of 4,000 kg or more. ISRO and the French Arian Aerospace have been collaborating for long, as India’s own heavy satellite rocket programme, designated Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV), has been making slow progress.
The main problem has been the non-availability of cryogenic engine technology with liquid propulsion to lift heavy satellites, in the category of 4,000 kg and above. India is yet to fully master the art of cryogenic engines although there is substantial progress now. Earlier, due to the denial regimes imposed after India’s nuclear tests, India could not source this technology from other countries and decided to develop it indigenously.
For the South Asia Satellite launch, India has successfully used its indigenously developed cryogenic engine.
This is the fourth successive mission where ISRO has used the ‘local made’ cryogenic engine, and successfully. However, all the satellites launched during these missions have been less than 2,500 kg in mass.
New Milestones towards Moon and Mars
Now, within the next few weeks, ISRO is expected to launch its new rocket called GSLV MIII. This rocket is expected to lift approximately 4,000 kg (four tons) of payload. ISRO then expects to up to the 6,000 kg payload category, and that will be a game changer in India’s space capabilities.
This should reduce ISRO’s dependence on foreign agencies for launching of heavy satellites, helping it save money on the one hand and put it in the international commercial launch market on the other.
More important, this capability would help India meet its ambitions in the deep space arena. This is because India could carry multiple payloads in its upcoming missions to Moon and Mars.
India is planning its second mission to Moon during 2018 and to Mars during 2020. This second mission to the Moon would have a Lander and a Rover vehicle for various pre-defined tasks for the assessment of the Moon’s surface.
There are also talks of a mission to Venus. However, preliminary work on this project is to begin.
Overall, India has a space programme catering for societal, security and commercial activities. The launch of GSAT 9 (the South Asia satellite) clearly highlights that India is willing to use its capabilities in science and technology not only for its own economic development but also for that of its neighbouring countries towards peace and prosperity of the region.
The author is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA)