Bravo, ISRO! Now for the Heavylifting
The challenge is to launch heavier satellites
Launching 104 satellites into space in one rocket called PSLV-C37 is, no doubt, a triumph of India’s space research. It is an achievement on a global scale as well, sort of. While the number of satellites launched is more than three times the previous record for simultaneous launches, set by Russia in 2014, the combined weight of the satellites was a mere 1.3 tonnes, of which a cartography satellite weighed more than 700 kg. The rest were nano-satellites, each weighing a few kilograms.
The Indian National Committee for Space Research, founded in 1962 at the initiative of Jawaharlal Nehru and Vikram Sarabhai, metamorphosed into Isro in 1969, barely a month after humankind’s first walk on the Moon. Conquest of the final frontier has been a work in progress, for all nations. Two commercial entities, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are serious contenders in the satellite launch business. India’s space programme has been spectacularly low-cost. However, its ability to launch heavy payloads remains limited — anything above four tonnes stumps it. Isro’s GSLV series of launch vehicles have an indigenous cryogenic engine, after a long delay. But their boosting power remains small. While Isro must continue indigenous work on rockets, materials, guidance systems, etc, it must proactively source available technology from around the world.
One consequence of India’s nuclear deal with the US has been its membership of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), secured last year, and liberation from assorted technology-denial sanctions that had been imposed after India’s nuclear tests. As an MTCR member, India’s access to rocket and related technology is much broader than it was, prior to that membership. India must use the new access it has to identify and procure the technologies it needs, to enhance its satellite-launch capability. India can and must stop reliance on foreign launchers for its communication satellites. Further, it must become a significant player in the market for heavier satellites as well.