Isro and industry: an enduring partnership

Seeking new horizons in space exploration, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) has opened its doors to the private industry for help in manufacturing heavy satellites and even launch vehicles.

The space agency has reportedly picked the Bengaluru-based Alpha Design Technologies to lead a consortium that will build two navigation satellites earmarked for India’s indigenously developed global positioning system: Navigation for Indian Constellation, or Navic.

The Navic constellation comprises seven satellites (all of which are already in their designated orbits) and the new satellites to be built by the private industry will have a standby role in the system.

The collaboration with the private sector is nothing new for Isro. Since the 1970s, the space agency has routinely sought the help of private players for the manufacture of satellite sub-systems and ground equipment.

Corporate majors like Godrej, Tatas, Larsen & Toubro, Mahindras and the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) have supplied critical systems, spacecraft parts, and liquid pro­pulsion engines for launch vehicles to Isro. This collaboration has made major contributions to many of the nearly 100 satellites Isro has made so far for wea­ther, earth imaging, telecommunication and broadcasting.

Indeed, the HAL’s cooperation with Isro since the mid-1960s include fabricating fuel tanks and alloy parts for the agency’s Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) and its workhorse launcher the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

The PSU also built key components like fuel tanks for Isro’s historic Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) that was launched in 2013. In fact, India’s heaviest satellite, the GSAT 7, which was launched by the Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III on its first operational flight on June 5, had major inputs from companies like HAL and Godrej and Boyce.

While all this augurs well for Isro to become a leader in the highly competitive global satellite launch services market, the latest decision to energise its partnership with the private sector has a special significance: it signals Isro’s determination to speed up its indigenisation programme started two decades ago.

The space agency needs to work with private enterprises and state-run majors if it is to reach its goal of fully indigenising the design and development of space technologies.

And there has never been a better time for the effort to gather steam than now as the “Make in India” programme is bound to give it a leg-up. The space agency has plans to build up to 20 satellites a year, which is a tall order for it to undertake with its current in-house capabilities.

The agency’s 18,000-strong human resource pool has remained more or less constant for years now while the number of satellites emerging from its stables has gone up considerably. Now with its talent pool widening, Isro will have to provide the requisite training for the industry at its centres and share its time-tested designs, drawings and testing facilities.

And of even greater significance perhaps is its decision to allow private players to help build launch vehicles. While industry played an increasingly larger role in building satellite systems and infrastructure and launch services till now, allowing direct private participation in critical areas like developing launchers is certainly a bold step for Isro — if one in the right direction.

That is what National Aeronautics and Space Administration did and today US companies like Boeing and SpaceX play key role in every launch that takes place. The European Space Agency too has an active partnership with the private industry to stimulate research and development, and integrate enterprise and innovation into its space missions.

Launch capability

Opening the door wider to the industry will also encourage bigger players to join in the effort to bolster India’s launch capability. That, in turn, could help the establishment of a sub-continental space industry based on public private partnership.

With the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota emerging as a major space launch hub—which could one day rival similar facilities in Europe and the US—India now boasts of up to 30% cheaper launches than other countries.

Low cost access to space is the watchword in the space sector and involving the private industry would leave Isro scientists free to focus on R&D for other key technologies such as the recoverable launch vehicle (RLV). Given that hardware costs 70% of a launch, an RLV is an ideal cost-effective space transportation system, since both the booster and the upper stage of the spacecraft are reusable. It is a technology demonstrator that has already been flight-tested.

It is not a bad idea either for Isro to think of eventually farming out low-earth orbit access altogether with private companies. For that would allow the space agency to focus on more ambitious missions to the inner and outer solar system.

These include second editions of India’s moon mission Chandrayaan and MOM (both of which involve landing rovers on the lunar/planetary surfaces) and missions to the Sun, Venus and the asteroids.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based senior journalist)

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