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Thursday, 12 May 2016

ISRO: The Frugal Frontier

Let’s be honest—space is expensive. That’s what happens when you spend millions of dollars on a single-use rocket for it to be dumped unceremoniously into the ocean after just one launch. But one space agency in particular has been turning heads over the last couple of years with their seemingly uncanny accomplishments, achieved at a fraction of the cost compared to the traditional big players. Just last month, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) managed to launch the last of its IRNSS satellite navigation formation, enabling India to join an elite group of nations with a home-grown satellite navigation program. And they did it for US$350 million, less than the cost overrun of Galileo, the European satellite navigation network project, which is in the billions of euros—and still rising. Just to clarify what that means: India intentionally spent less money on their navigation network than the Europeans spent by accident. From a science writer’s perspective, that’s a nice, tangible analogy (and we do love analogies). Here are a couple of other fun ISRO comparisons you may have heard: the Mangaalayan Mars, also known as Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, probe cost less to design, build, launch and operate (US$74 million) than it cost to produce the cinematic space drama Gravity (US$100 million). Furthermore, the same Mars mission cost less to send to Mars per kilometer than an Indian taxi ride. According to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “A one-km auto rickshaw ride in Ahmedabad takes Rs 10 per km and India reached Mars at Rs 7 per km, which is really amazing.” Indeed it is. The art of cutting costs This begs the question: just how is ISRO managing to put things into space so darned cheaply? There are a number of factors: Less instrumentation/capability, less cost Critics are quick to point out that MOM is not as complex as NASA’s equivalent, the MAVEN mission, which costs US$671 million and carries eight scientific instruments. In contrast, MOM costs just 11 percent of that amount, and carries five instruments. (Of course, MOM is a testbed mission, while MAVEN is primarily a science mission.) Also, ISRO tends to go for very targeted and valuable science goals, rather than just sending something into space with the hope that something nice is discovered. Ultimately, reduced complexity means reduced risk due to a reduced need for redundancy. And less redundancy equals less mass, which means less fuel—and less cost. Made in India You’ve heard of the phrase “buy local, and support local businesses?” It also goes for space technology. Take a look at America for example. They are currently paying well over the odds for soviet rocket engines from Russia, which have been sitting in a Russian warehouse since the Cold War. South Korea pays the Japanese for a lot of its hardware. As for European Space Agency (ESA) … well, that’s just a big political mess. Think of it as a bunch of middlemen, all slapping their fees on top of the cost—at every single step of the value chain. ISRO does not have to deal with such financial and political headaches. They have Indian contractors build the main hardware locally, which also provides local jobs; transportation costs are minimized as well. Less international bureaucracy International contracts require contract lawyers, export controls, political handshakes and a whole lot more besides. All negotiators and departments need to be on the same page, and preferably in the same time zone. There is no universal framework for procuring contracts, and it varies from country to country. They may also be susceptible to local import laws, arms imports (yes, rockets are weapons) and various checks and balances for purchases in order to remain transparent. The contract negotiation will always be at the whim of the slowest moving party. Keeping it in the family can drastically reduce the time for these things to get moving. Lower labor costs Scientists and engineers in India receive a lower salary compared to NASA, ESA and the Japan Aerospace eXploration Agency. This is obviously no reflection of quality—they were the first country to reach Mars on the first attempt! It simply means that wages are lower, and this contributes slightly to lower engineering and operational costs. These are just four very good reasons why ISRO manages to remain so cost-effective in its space pursuits. Space economics is very complicated, and of course, there are other subtle influencing factors, but the biggest factor is that of simplified hardware. As mentioned, simplified hardware designed with unambiguous scientific goals means less mass, and less mass means less fuel, which means less mass again. Mass is everything in space travel, and keeping the weight down is something that ISRO does very well (so far). Reusable rockets are the future So, what does ISRO have planned next? And will they be able to demonstrate even more astounding levels of cost efficiency? You bet. This month, we will see the first hypersonic test flight of the Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstration Program. As mentioned earlier, the high costs of spaceflight is due to the fact that the rocket vehicle is basically disposable. Imagine flying from Singapore to Bangkok and throwing the Airbus A320 away at the end of the flight. That’s basically the current launch industry business model. Thanks to this limitation, reusable rockets are hot news at the moment. They are the de facto holy grail of space flight. SpaceX is doing it. So is Blue Horizon, and a handful of others. They are the very definition of cost-effective space travel. So you can bet your bottom rupee that ISRO will have a few lessons to share in that regard.

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