By Kartik Bommakanti
In 2020, India has several space missions planned and an expansion in the activities of the Indian Space Research Organisation’ (ISRO) is likely to witness the initial steps for the creation of additional space infrastructure. Here we analyse, as India’s space launch rates grow, the construction of new space launch stations, which will be indispensable if India wants to be an internationally competitive space actor.
Quantitative and not just qualitative measures are significant in determining the number of space-related work ISRO pursues. A crucial metric for assessing the performance of a space programme is the number of satellites it places in their designated orbits. If ISRO is to significantly consolidate its position in the international satellite launch vehicle market, the number of space stations operated by ISRO from where it can service the spacecraft launch needs of its customers is extremely important.
India as of today has two launch stations, which ISRO operates – the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launch Station (TERLS) located at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala and the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) at Sriharikota (SHAR) on the Southern Coast of Andhra Pradesh. TERLS primarily carries out sounding rockets launches, which are solid fuelled rockets, for tests in the upper atmosphere and the ionosphere that bring scientific and technical value for future ventures into space.
Whereas the SDSC undertakes the launch missions for space or beyond the earth’s atmosphere that cater to India’s domestic scientific, military, weather, developmental and commercial needs as well as those of foreign customers. The SDSC has exclusively borne the burden of all the tasks and mission associated with the latter.
ISRO’s performance in this regard is highly commendable. However, the Indian space programme suffers from serious constraints in the number of satellite and other launch-related missions ISRO can pursue and sustain due to the lack of sufficient number of launch pads and stations. The Satish Dhawan spaceport at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh has remained the bedrock for sustaining space launches for decades.
Given the volume of commercial launches, ISRO undertakes in addition to its own missions, that it will need additional launch pads and support infrastructure if it is to meet commercial as well as native demand. Sriharikota alone has two launch pads, which was sufficient when commercial demand and the ISRO’s activities to meet the country’s developmental and scientific requirements were still limited.
ISRO has witnessed year-on-year increases in the number of satellites it launches. It has launched over a hundred satellite missions. The Polar Satellite Launch has been the source of most of the ISRO’s launch rate success completing 48 out of 50 mission successfully. Indeed, following detailed evaluation a recent Parliamentary delegation led by Jairam Ramesh found that the Sriharikota spaceport needs a significant upgrade for logistics and access as ISRO’s launch rates are expected to double over the next five years.
Consequently, the imperative to build another spaceport has been on the agenda of ISRO for many years. Thankfully, a site has been identified at Tuticorin in Tamilnadu where land has been acquired to establish a second spaceport. ISRO’s burden will ease with the establishment of a new launch facility due to the continuing growth of ISRO’s missions in both complexity and scale as well in meeting the increasing demand from the Indian commercial sector and scientific and technical institutions and foreign vendors. These entities are seeking cost effective rideshare bargains that ISRO has to offer through its launch services and workhorse launch vehicle – the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).
Apart from redressing, the growing requirements of both domestically and internationally driven demand, the spaceport to be built at Tuticorin has considerable merit from a financial, scientific and technological standpoint.
From a financial standpoint, the ISRO is likely to save more money because the Tuticorin spaceport when built will assemble and launch the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, which will be cheaper than PSLV. The SSLV can place 500 kilograms (Kgs) satellite in orbit in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at short notice. That apart, the Tuticorin spaceport could potentially launch the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle MK-III (GSLV-Mark III), the Unified Modular Launch Vehicle (UMLV) and the Avatar Re-usable Launch Vehicle (ARLV).
The SSLV appears to be a certainty for launch from the future Tuticorin space station and there are substantial scientific and technological for doing so. Due to its proximity to the equator, which is to the South of peninsular India, the SSLV as the ISRO Chairman K. Sivan observed, “It was mainly to get advantages of southward launch especially for SSLV”.
Launch satellites from close to the equatorial bulge has several advantages. Firstly, the earth’s spin can provide a launch vehicle extra thrust. Any object on the equatorial surface or close to it, is moving at an approximate speed of 1670 kilometres (kms). Indeed the earth moves faster at the equator than it does towards the poles of the planet. Since the earth is spherical in shape, the widest or bulgiest point is at the equator, which has to travel more miles in a single revolution on its axis, which in turn means that the land is moving faster at the equator than at any other point on earth. Farther away from the equator as we approach the poles the Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) cannot gain sufficient escape velocity to free itself from the earth’s gravity, which could bring down the rocket with a crash.
Before launch, a SLV is already moving at high speed (which is 1670 kms at the equator) and when launched the SLV travels 500 kms faster than it would, if it were to be launched from close to the poles. Launch from the equator or very near it enables the SLV to remain on trajectory allowing its satellite payload to reach its orbit. This explains why it makes eminent sense to launch satellites from a launch station located in Tuticorin, which is almost at the Southern tip of the Indian peninsula. Thus, launching the SSLV and other launch vehicles carrying satellites from Tuticorin carries considerable advantages, extending beyond commercial and developmental benefits.
Taken as a whole, all these factors make obvious why the Indian space agency sees merit in establishing additional launch stations. The prospective addition of a space launch station at Tuticorin will reduce the launch burden on SDSC. Challenges do remain for ISRO in recruiting the requisite scientific and technical pool of expertise to sustain and manage India burgeoning space enterprise.