Launch of a different kind

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

The Tecsar in Yehud, Israel, before its launch from Sriharikota. - IAI HANDOUT/REUTERS

The Tecsar in Yehud, Israel, before its launch from Sriharikota. - IAI HANDOUT/REUTERS

The Tecsar in

IT was a launch that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) wanted to be kept a secret. There was no prior announcement; nor were there the usual curtain-raiser trips for mediapersons. When several Telugu newspaper reporters from Sulurpet, a small town near Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, and this Frontline correspondent got wind of the launch and reached the launch site on January 21, they were barred from entering the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC).

The news about the core-alone version of ISROs Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) successfully putting into orbit Israels Tecsar satellite on that day was not announced by ISRO as is the custom. It was Antrix Corporation Limited, the marketing agency of Indias Department of Space, that announced the success in a press release. Antrix Corporation is happy to announce that its second full-fledged commercial launch has been successfully completed today. After the final countdown, PSLV-C10 lifted off from the first launch pad at SDSC, SHAR [Sriharikota], at 09.15 hours with the ignition of the first stage. Incidentally, this is the 25th satellite launch mission from SDSC, SHAR. The launch of Tecsar was executed under a commercial contract between Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Antrix Corporation.

The press release did not mention ISRO at all. The implication was that ISRO was not in the picture. At a press conference addressed later that day by ISRO Chairman G. Madhavan Nair and other top ISRO officials in Chennai, no official of IAI or MBT Space, Israel, which led the design, development and fabrication of Tecsar, was present. They were, however, earlier present at SHAR during the launch.

At the press conference itself, the emphasis was on how it was a red-letter day and a landmark event for Antrix because the successful orbiting of Tecsar signified the second full-fledged commercial launch by Antrix. The first one was on April 23, 2007, when a core-alone configuration of PSLV, without its customary six strap-on motors that surround the first stage, put an Italian astronomy satellite called Agile into orbit. Madhavan Nair said, We won the contract [for launching Tecsar] against stiff competition from many other players. The orbit we achieved will be the envy of any person in the launch service. It recognises the launch capability of ISRO on par with other leading players in the world.

K.R. Sridhara Murthi, Managing Director, Antrix, said that for putting Tecsar into its difficult orbit, they had charged quite a lot above the international rate of $15,000 to $20,000 a kg. During launches in January, April and September 2007, from Sriharikota, and also during the International Astronautical Congress in Hyderabad in September 2007, ISRO top brass had dodged questions on whether ISRO was planning to launch any Israeli satellite. As per the original plan, the core-alone PSLV that was to launch Tecsar in September 2007 had been assembled, and the satellite had reached SHAR from Israel and undergone tests. But the launch was postponed. So ISRO dismantled the vehicle and the Israelis bottled up the satellite.

In the first week of December 2007, newspapers and television channels went to town saying that ISRO had abandoned the launch of Tecsar under pressure from the United States, which did not want ISRO to get a slice of the launch market. Informed ISRO officials, however, said there was pressure from the Gulf countries on India to call off the launch of the Israeli satellite, and so the Ministry of External Affairs wanted ISRO to bide its time.

Madhavan Nair denied any such pressure from the Gulf countries. The lift-off was to take place in September 2007, but certain technical issues [with the satellite] forced the postponement of the launch, then the monsoon intervened. The launch took place in January after the monsoon, he said. According to the ISRO Chairman, Israel did not want any publicity until the launch was successful.

On the allegations that Tecsar was a spy satellite because it has a resolution of one metre, Madhavan Nair claimed that he had not seen the instruments on board the Tecsar. I dont think there is a view that there is a class of satellites called spy satellites. Applications are in the minds of the people. It [the satellite] is only a tool, he said.

The leading Israeli daily, Haaretz, in its January 21 edition, called Tecsar a sophisticated new spy satellite, which would bolster Israels ability to spy on Iran, providing it with photographic angles and reception of Iranian communications, which were unavailable in prior satellite launches (The Hindu, January 22).

Tecsar is a radar-imaging, remote-sensing satellite that can take pictures of the earth 24 hours of the day, through rain and cloud.

T.S. Subramanian
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