India’s first private rocket set for launch in 2020

Bengaluru (India), 13 June – The first rocket built by a consortium of private firms in the country is set for launch by 2020.

If successful, this would increase capacity to hurl small satellites into space, meeting both local demand and serving global customers such as OneWeb.

Till now, Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) was the only manufacturer of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). In the two decades since its debut launch, PSLVs have done 35 flights, hurling 86 satellites – including 45 foreign, small and medium satellites – into space.

Isro built this rocket by integrating components and systems made by Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL), Larsen & Toubro, Godrej Aerospace, Avasarala Technologies and Walchandnagar Industries.

However, Isro has been able to scale up production only up to a limit – it has the capacity to launch six PSLVs a year, compared to two a few years earlier.

In the meanwhile, local demand for satellites – for scientific purposes, remote-sensing and observation and planetary missions – is increasing. There is a backlog of 23 foreign satellites.

There are also opportunities from global firms that plan to launch satellites. US-based OneWeb, in which Bharti Airtel has invested, plans to hurl 648 satellites on low-earth orbits to bring internet access to rural areas. Last year, Spire became the first US firm to send satellites on an Indian rocket.

To tap this growing business, Isro has been engaging with HAL, Godrej, L&T and other suppliers to build a consortium so that they can make the rocket. Isro would then be free to focus on innovations and missions.

With the private consortium manufacturing PSLVs, Isro expects to triple annual launches to 18 a year. It also hopes to sell services globally and get more business to build satellites and launch them from Indian shores.

“If you are able to build on top of what we’ve built… and make it more attractive, there is a possibility that the Indian industry can also gain in this global opportunity,” said Isro Chairman A S Kiran Kumar.

Competition & meeting it head on

Isro’s move to engage the industry also comes at a time when there is a global race to bring down the cost of access to space.

SpaceX, a privately space faring company founded by Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, a rocket firm owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, have demonstrated capabilities for a reusable rocket.

This would bring down costs to transport satellites to space as a few stages could be reused instead of dispensing the entire rocket, a practice that is adopted traditionally.

SpaceX, which plans to commercialise its Falcon 9 rocket in 2018, has listed a price of $62 million to launch a 5.5-tonne communication satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), 36,000 km in space. It could also take manned missions.

This will be a third cheaper than the current launch cost of Arianespace, the European space agency.

At present, Isro has a rocket – geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV) – that can carry as much as 2.5 tonnes to GTO. It is building a heavier rocket – GSLV MkIII, which will eventually carry six-tonne satellites.

Now, a GSLV costs around Rs 220 crore to hurl a 2.5-tonne satellite into space, which is almost the same as SpaceX would charge.

Isro is concerned about the shift in competition from large government-run agencies with their bureaucracy and long timelines to nimble privately held space faring companies.

“There are lot of private entities that are getting into space, in the US or Europe. Now, what happens when they start operating is that they’re continuously looking at how the cost can be brought down,” said Isro Chairman Kumar.

For this, Isro is working on new products. Its success in sending a prototype of the unmanned reusable launch vehicle (RLV) is giving it a bigger and faster push to realise a full-fledged vehicle in a decade.

It is building a semi-cryogenic engine – that uses liquefied oxygen and kerosene, which can be handled more easily and cost effectively for its GSLV MkIII rocket to bring down costs.

“In terms of satellites, a large number of smaller ones are coming out, and they also require launch opportunities which others have not been able to provide and we have been able to provide. So you need to leverage that, but then you also need to make sure that you continue to improve your ability to provide solutions at a contemporary and a competitive price,” said Kumar.

He added: “So that is where our RLV-type of things comes into the picture where you need to ensure that the cost of access to space, you are able to bring down and be competitive in the coming days.”