In launch business

Print edition : May 18, 2007

PSLV-C8 blasts off from Sriharikota on April 23.-V. GANESAN

The ISRO makes its first successful commercial launch by putting the Italian satellite Agile into orbit.

IF the success of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C8) mission from Sriharikota (Andhra Pradesh) in putting the Italian scientific satellite Agile into a precise orbit is a precursor, Antrix Corporation Limited, the marketing agency of the Department of Space, is all set to soar high in the launch business. Antrix was richer by $29,000 a kilogram of payload, that is, Rs.50 crore, when the 352-kg satellite of the Italian Space Agency (ISA) was put into orbit by a pared-down version of the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) PSLV, called the "core-alone" vehicle, on April 23.

Three earlier PSLV flights had placed six small satellites from abroad into orbit and Antrix Corporation charged just nominal fees for the job done. The Agile mission is ISRO's first commercial launch because Antrix charged premium rates from the ISA. Besides, Agile is the first main payload from abroad on a PSLV. While the average international rates for putting a satellite into orbit are anywhere between $10,000 and $15,000 a kg, Antrix could insist on a payment of $29,000 a kg for the Agile because it was "a dedicated mission with a specific orbital requirement". The ISA wanted ISRO to put the Agile into a difficult, equatorial circular orbit of 550 kilometres and at a low inclination of 2.5 degrees. The core-alone PSLV, shorn of its six strap-on booster motors, accomplished both with aplomb. This was PSLV's 11th flight, but a maiden one as a core-alone vehicle.

K.R. Sridhara Murthi, Executive Director, Antrix Corporation Limited, called the mission "an important milestone for us" and "a good step that will enhance the confidence of customers in the PSLV". The PSLV, he pointed out, had a good reliability record. Out of the PSLV's 11 flights, 10 have been successful in a row. "Our basic approach," said Sridhara Murthi, "is to use the spare capacity [for launching satellites from abroad] after meeting our national requirements." He was circumspect about Antrix' plans to capture a slice of the international launch market. "We are at the entry level. We have to stabilise slowly and look forward to playing a role in the international launch business. It is a competitive market," he said.

Antrix markets ISRO's launch vehicles to fly satellites from abroad. It sells imageries from Indian Remote-sensing Satellites to other countries and also undertakes contracts to build satellites as per user-specifications, markets sub-systems and components for satellites, and provides tracking facilities.

ISRO Chairman G. Madhavan Nair, speaking at a press conference at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota soon after the Agile launch, said: "We were able to offer a commercially competitive launch opportunity to an international customer. The fact that ISA chose ISRO for launching Agile shows that it appreciated the quality and reliability of the vehicle as well as the price and schedule offered to them. So a whole new era of space opportunity in the commercial field has opened up. It will enhance the confidence of customers and we will be able to get more such offers in the future."

Prof. Giovanni Bignami, President, ISA, who was present at the Mission Control Centre at Sriharikota, called the mission "the beginning of the new stage of cooperation" between India and Italy. He praised ISRO engineers for executing the mission with "remarkable calm and professionalism". The successful launch would put India "on a totally different footing" in the launch market, Prof. Bignami said.

The mood is enthusiastic at Antrix because it has won a contract for ISRO to put into orbit an Israeli satellite called Polaris; the launch will be made in August/September from Sriharikota using the PSLV's core-alone configuration. Polaris, which weighs about 300 kg, is a radar-imaging remote-sensing satellite that can take pictures of the earth day and night, through cloud, rain and sunshine.

Antrix has also won a bid to put into orbit a cluster of six micro-satellites from Canada. The PSLV core-alone has again been drafted to do the job. The micro-satellites, weighing 28 kg in all, will ride piggyback on ISRO's Cartosat-2A, which will be used for mapping purposes.

Antrix has teamed up with EADS-Astrium, Paris and won contracts to build two satellites. This follows an agreement between the two to build jointly communication satellites for the international market. While one satellite called W2M is for Eutelsat, another called Hylas (Highly Flexible Satellite) is for Avanti Screenmedia Group in the United Kingdom. While EADS-Astrium will provide the transponders and the communication equipment for the two satellites, ISRO will build the satellites themselves, including their control and power systems. Work on the building of the two satellites is already under way at the ISRO Satellite Centre, Bangalore.

"It is almost a 50:50 share of the workload. We bid this as partners against international competition. The two contracts are firm. The EADS chief was here today and there is a possibility that we may get two more satellites [to build] in the next one year," Madhavan Nair said.

Italy's Agile Satellite sitting atop the dual launch adapter in PSLV-C8.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The PSLV-C8 mission stood out on three counts. Firstly, it was ISRO's first commercial launch and signalled that Antrix had made a good entry into the complex, competitive global launch market.Secondly, ISRO used the PSLV's core-alone configuration for the first time and it also considered factors such as controllability, new aerodynamic characterisation, implementation of new software and so on.

Dr. B.N. Suresh, Director, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram, called it "an altogether new mission" because the Italians insisted that Agile should go into a low inclination of 2.5 degrees and "so the entire launch vehicle characterisation changed". Yet, the PSLV-C8 achieved a good accuracy in orbit. It put Agile into an orbit of 549 km by 551 km and an inclination of 2.47 degrees. "We are proud that a core-alone vehicle, being tried for the first time, did the job so well. It shows the maturity of the technologies involved in the launch vehicle. It further proves the versatility of the PSLV for multi-missions," said Suresh. (The VSSC built the core-alone vehicle).

Thirdly, the PSLV-C8 used for the first time an Advanced Avionics Module (AAM), designed, developed and realised by the VSSC. The AAM had a next-generation computer, advanced inertial navigation, guidance and control systems, and sophisticated telemetry packages. All these technologies will be inducted in ISRO's future PSLVs, the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLVs) and the GSLV-Mk III under development. The next-generation computers in the AAM had a microprocessor called Vikram, which was also designed and realised by the VSSC.

ISRO also made bold to experiment with the PSLV this time. A normal PSLV comprises four stages and six strap-on booster motors, strung around the first stage. It is 44 metres tall and weighs 295 tonnes. It can put payloads weighing up to 1,600 kg in a polar orbit. ISRO decided to re-configure the vehicle for Agile. It hived off the six strap-on motors because Agile weighed only 352 kg and the AAM another 185 kg. Thus, a core-alone weighing 230 tonnes was born. When ISRO engineers reconfigured the PSLV, they were thinking about the future too. With increasing miniaturisation in electronics and optics, the size of payloads has been shrinking. So a core-alone PSLV was a cost-effective solution for deploying satellites with low mass. If heavier satellites are required to be put into orbit, the strap-on motors could be easily restored.

The 48-hour final countdown for the PSLV-C8's lift-off progressed without any glitch and the vehicle rose from the launch pedestal in the second launch pad at Sriharikota at the appointed time of 3-30 p.m. Without the fire-power of the six strap-on booster motors, the PSLV's lift-off was a trifle slow but it soon vaulted into the sky.

All the events - such as the ignition and the separation of the four stages - occurred at the appointed time. At the end of 22 minutes, the fourth stage injected Agile into a precise orbit at a velocity of 25,000 km an hour. The life of the AAM ended with the separation of the fourth stage.

Agile, which will have a life of three to four years, is a scientific satellite meant for observing astronomical phenomena. It has detectors for sensing bursts of high-energy Gamma rays and X-rays emanating from the distant regions of the universe. To understand the violent phenomena that shaped the universe, it is necessary to study high-energy radiation such as Gamma rays and X-rays, which result from such phenomena.

Prof. Bignami, a reputed astronomer, called Agile "a gem in the crown of Italian high-energy space astronomy". An analysis of bursts of Gamma rays, X-rays and photons would unlock secrets of the universe such as its origin. According to Prof. Bignami, who has devoted his life to the study of neutron stars, Agile would study neutron stars. He acknowledged Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar's role in predicting the existence of neutron stars, which won the latter the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983. "The detectors which have been flown in Agile are extremely important because they represent the great Italian tradition in experimental physics," the ISA President said.

Prof. Marco Tawani, Principal Investigator of the Agile project, "who had not slept for three years [since the project began] and had lost a lot of weight", was "finally smiling" on April 23 at the Mission Control Centre.

For ISRO, it turned out to be a cost-effective mission. If the PSLV-C8 cost Rs.65 crore to build, it received about Rs.50 crore from the ISA to put Agile into orbit. Besides, it was able to test its own AAM.

When asked what share of the satellite-launch market the ISRO would like to have, Madhavan Nair said: "I can only have a dream today. To make it a reality is a tough job. We will be happy if we can get at least 2 per cent of the international market in the next few years. Although we have a good technology, good reliability and a good price, decisions are quite often made on political factors and it is not easy there... ."

Sridhara Murthi estimated that the total, global commercial market for launching satellites stood between $1.5 billion and $2 billion for all types of satellites, from small to large. Micro-satellites did not come under this category. "They are an entirely different market." More often, they were launched with bigger satellites, typically riding piggyback.

"We have a reliable launch vehicle. We have a good place in the market. We are competing with other launch vehicles, particularly from Russia. The United States offers vehicles. So does Europe. Certainly we can have some share of the market," Sridhara Murthi said.

Antrix had done business for Rs.500 crore in the financial year 2006-2007, which is a remarkable achievement for a small company with a staff of just half a dozen people.

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