The February launch of more than 100 satellites on board the Indian Polar Space Launch Vehicle (PSLV) has smashed the previous world record held by Russia since 2014, highlighting a space programme driven by regional competition and security concerns, national ambition and a laser focus on cost effectiveness. Elizabeth Quintana reports
For the Western defence community, advances in Asian space programmes may seem an irrelevance. However, the increasingly dual-use nature of the technology and our collective dependence on space services, whether in the military or in civil society, should give us food for thought.
India is by no means the most active player in the region; China, Russia and Japan are also investing heavily, but India is perhaps the best placed to exploit the rapidly expanding global commercial space sector.
On 15 February, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched the PSLV carrying the indigenous CARTOSAT reconnaissance satellite, two Indian nano-satellites and 101 foreign nano-satellites, breaking the world record in the process.
The previous record was held by Russia, which had launched 37 satellites on board a Dneper launch vehicle in 2014. Onboard the PSLV were 88 satellites from Californian-based Planet labs and nano-satellites from Israel, Kazakhstan, The Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates. The clients had procured their rides through Antrix Corporation, ISRO’s commercial arm, which serves to offset the indigenous launch costs by seeking rideshare from international and commercial customers.
PSLV has proved remarkably reliable, achieving 38 successful launches out of 39. The fact that Planet Labs chose to launch all 88 of their satellites in one mission is testament to that reliability. It is also significantly cheaper than any other launcher on the market. The European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 can cost up to $100 million per launch and Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launches for around $60 million. However, a PSLV launch costs as little as $20 million, making it very attractive for the burgeoning small satellite sector.
Planet Labs now operates a constellation of 143 satellites, making it one of the largest to date. However, from 2018, mega constellations such as OneWeb plan to launch hundreds of satellites into low earth orbit (LEO). Current demand for space launch to LEO is outstripping supply so the success of the latest PSLV mission puts it very much at the forefront of this lucrative market, although the frequency of Indian launches is still some way off US, Russia and China, which each launched more than 20 in 2016.
While PSLV is limited to polar and sun synchronous orbits in LEO, India is also developing a geostationary earth orbit (GEO) space launch vehicle in order to carry heavier payloads to geostationary orbit, which it would like to offer on the commercial market, too.
However, reliability for Indian launchers capable of such performance has proved difficult to date. In addition, ISRO successfully tested a reusable spaceplane and hypersonic test vehicle in 2016, making it the fourth country to successfully test the capability. Both platforms have clear defence applications should India wish to develop them for that purpose. ISRO is also developing a future family of unified launch vehicles, which will use the same series of engines and boosters, thus simplifying the manufacturing process and further improving reliability. This approach is already used by SpaceX and the latest generation of Chinese launchers.
There has been some confusion over India’s ambition with regards to Anti-Satellite (ASAT) technology. Delhi – and certainly ISRO – is committed to the peaceful use of space. India is a treaty member of the UN Outer Space Treaty (1967) and joined the Missile Technology Control Regime in June 2016, which limits the transfer of missile (and launch vehicle) technology for systems with a range greater than 300km and a payload of more than 500kg. However, in the wake of Chinese ASAT tests in 2007 and 2013, Dr Saraswat, Director of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), has pointed out that programmes such as the Prithvi (part of Indian Ballistic Missile Defence shield) and its indigenous Agni V intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) have the constituent parts to build an ASAT. Such statements are generally viewed to be part of India’s overall deterrence posture rather than part of an active programme but are nonetheless worrying.
India’s successes are not limited to the launch sector. The Indian Civil Aviation Ministry and ISRO launched the GPS-Aided Geo Augmented Navigation system in 2012 to improve air traffic management. Building on this capability, in 2016 ISRO completed the 7-satellite India Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), which provides independent positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) data. Indian officials have stated that an indigenous PNT system has been driven by military concerns that GPS may not be available in the event of a conflict, although clearly both GAGAN and IRNSS have broader utility.
India owns the largest number of communications satellites in the Asia-Pacific region. It has launched 33 satellites since 1983 and currently operates 14 GISAT and INSAT satellites comprising nine satellites in GEO. These satellites operate more than 200 transponders in C, extended C, Ku bands. They provide services including telecommunications, satellite television broadcasting, satellite newsgathering, weather forecasting, disaster warning and search and rescue operations. India also operates 13 earth observation satellites in sun synchronous orbit including Oceansat (ocean monitoring), Cartosat (4 x mapping and GIS purposes), Resourcesat (3 x agricultural, urban planning, rural monitoring, forestry management, water resource monitoring satellites), Risat (2 x radar sat), Meghatropiques (atmospheric monitoring), SARAL (ocean monitoring), SCATSAT-1 (weather forecasting) and four in GEO. India is also seeking to release imagery data to encourage better exploitation of the data it collects and also to encourage commercial start-ups in an industry that to date has been largely dominated by ISRO and government agencies. As in Japan and South Korea, India’s concern for regional security and interest in monitoring the activities of its neighbours has given an added incentive to its space programme, with many of its satellites having dual-use capabilities.
Looking further afield, India has successfully completed orbiter missions to the moon (2008) and to Mars (2013). The latter was particularly significant as the Indian Mangalayaan programme was successful in its first attempt – beating the Chinese – and achieved its mission at a fraction of the cost of previous NASA missions. ISRO will return to the moon and Mars in 2018, this time sending both an orbiter and a robotic rover on its lunar mission. It also has missions planned to the Sun to study solar weather and coronal mass ejections (2019) and to observe Venus and Jupiter (launching in 2020). PSLV will also support both the Indian and Japanese teams chasing the Google Lunar X-prize, launching both teams in late 2017.
In summary, India has an impressive space programme, which is driven by national ambition, regional security and commercial imperatives. Its focus on cost control in order to maintain popular support for the space programme has placed it favourably to meet the burgeoning demands of the small satellite industry. India is also actively encouraging the development of a broader domestic commercial space sector although the sector remains dominated by government agencies at present. ISRO’s focus remains on the peaceful use of outer space in line with its scientific remit, but a number of DRDO missile systems and ISRO satellites offer dual-use capabilities that could have implications for the broader strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region.