Flight of fancy?

Published: Tuesday 15 November 1994

WITH the successful flight of the polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV-D2), India has gained a foothold in an exclusive international space club. But sobering the optimism expressed after the successful launch of the 870 kg IRS-P2 satellite is the fact that Indian space scientists have a long way to go before they can exploit these capabilities for commercial gain. It is probable that the huge investments made in this resource intensive sector will show few monetary dividends in the near future.

Although there is a growing market for launch facilities to place small communication satellites in space, and remote sensing satellites in low earth orbits, India may not be in as favourable a position to exploit these opportunities as it is boasting of. As per the schedules drawn up by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), it appears that scientists are unlikely to be able to boost more than one launch vehicle each year till the end of this century.

The negative implications of this spasmodic programme in a competitive global economy where quick response is crucial to success, are obvious. Even though Indian satellite launching services would cost significantly less than the Western market -- US$ 5 million to US $ 10 million less -- which have a waiting period of over a year, countries that wish to place their own satellites are bound to look to the more experienced nations like the USA, France, Japan, Russia, even China.

It is expected that the demand for launching small satellites will increase, with companies like the US giant Motorola, which plans to launch 40 satellites as a part of its Iridium project, and the London-based Inmarsat, showing an interest in low earth orbit communication satellites which are necessary for cellular phones. But the PSLV capacity to launch larger satellites needs to be upgraded. The original requirement was that the PSLV should place 1 tonne satellites of the IRS class in an 900-km polar orbit, but the IRS-P2 launched by the PSLV-D2 recently weighed only 870 kg. Experts contend that the PSLV should be able to launch satellites weighing 1,300 to 1,400 kg, but it is unlikely to be able to do that till its 4th flight.

However, thanks to the its management style, ISRO has successfully pioneered efforts to engineer collaborations between Indian R&D establishments and universities, and industry. And now there is a need to consolidate these efforts to ensure that we not only maintain self-sufficiency in technology development, but also eventually prove our managerial and marketing skills by reaping in profits as soon as possible.

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