Sunday, 15 May 2016
Isro Could Lose The Cost Race To Spacex
The low-cost commercial foreign satellite launch services of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) are poised to take a severe beating at the hands of Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) fly-back rockets, the Falcon 9 series. SpaceX, headquartered in Hawthorne, California, has developed a technology of soft-landing its rocket’s first stage at a predetermined location after a satellite launch, reassembling that with a second stage,refuelling and sending the assembled rocket on a second launch mission into space within hours of the previous one. Conventional launches by the Bengaluru-headquartered ISRO and other space agencies not only add to the cost of readying a new launcher, but also the time taken for the next launch. According to Musk, as well as space experts, SpaceX’s concept – which is being successfully tested – can drastically cut spaceflight costs “by a factor of 100”, making the company a low-cost game-changer in the satellite market. ISRO gained popularity for its 100% successful foreign satellite launches using the polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV) rockets, charging just 60% of the fees charged by foreign space agencies such as Arianespace. Since May 1999, it has successfully launched 57 international customer satellites from 20 countries on board the PSLV. ISRO’s global client list includes EADS Astrium, Intelsat, Avanti Group, WorldSpace, Inmarsat, World Sat, DLR, KARI, Eutelsat and several other space institutions across Europe, West Asia and South-East Asia. But all that is likely to change. Former National Aerospace Laboratories director and the longest serving member (resigned in 2012) of the Indian space commission, Prof Roddam Narasimha said, “At least for some time, ISRO will not be affected. But what SpaceX is doing will eventually drastically reduce launch costs.” He said India’s PSLV launcher, which has been a complete success, will continue to hold sway for at least “some time to come” as SpaceX is yet to perfect its technologies. “But I also feel ISRO is not utilising its global launch market properly. They have to do more,” he said. Former ISRO chairman Prof UR Rao stressed the importance of developing reusable rocket technologies: “Just imagine if passenger flights were not reusable and a new plane had to be used after each flight, what impact it would have on the cost of each flight! So, reusability is the future of launch technologies if one were to look at reducing costs.” Rao, however, felt the major significance of SpaceX technologies would be for long-duration space flights. But SpaceX already has about 70 launches in its kitty worth $10 billion in contracts. These include commercial satellite launches (which ISRO does) and missions for NASA under a $1.6 billion contract to fly a series of 12 cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station, besides carrying crew. In August 2014, ISRO’s customer Eutelsat (the third largest fixed satellite services operator in the world) planned to spend about 100 million (about Rs 760.29 crore) lesser per year till 2017 and preferred SpaceX over ISRO. ISRO does have its own Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV), the technology demonstrator of which is to be tested later this month. But ISRO’s RLV is similar to US’ space shuttle, in which the reusable component – the 1.5 tonne winged spacecraft – lifts off vertically, powered by a rocket, then separates from the rocket to release the payload into the orbit and return to earth to land like an aircraft on a runway. The main rocket, however, is wasted, unlike in SpaceX’s launches, adding to costs. With the RLV, ISRO is expecting to bring down the cost per launch from the current $5,000 (about Rs 3.33 lakh) per kg to $500 (Rs 33,305) per kg of payload charged to customers. But the project (called Avatar), is expected to take another nine years to complete. By this time, experts believe, SpaceX’s already proven technology would have made inroads in the global satellite launch market, impacting ISRO’s prospects. ISRO officials were unavailable for comments despite repeated calls and emails sent to them.
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