DON'T look now, but ISRO is changing. The Indian Space Research Organisation is going commercial. For long a centre of excellence in research and development, ISRO has so far been just that. However, it is now embarking upon a programme that will see it using its capabilities for not just furthering the Indian space programme but also commercially exploiting its capabilities.
For this, ISRO has drawn up a two-pronged approach. The first, and perhaps more immediate, is the sale of data from the Indian Remote Sensing Satellites (IRSS). With five satellites that will go up by May this year, the Indian network of remote sensors will become the most comprehensive in the world. These satellites literally map every corner of the globe and ISRO is now looking at selling this data to various government and private bodies in several countries which require it for purposes as diverse as urban planning and fish-eries to environmental impact assessment and water management.
ISRO chairman K. Kasturi-rangan says his clients already include Germany, the US, Thailand, Korea and Saudi Arabia. However, he believes the tempo will be stepped up further after the launch of IRS5 in May from Sriharikota. Of the total remote sensing data market of about $50 million, ISRO is looking to capture 25 per cent. "I know it sounds ambitious, but I think it's definitely within our reach," he says.
However, for the foreseeable future, the money from remote sensing is unlikely to grow very rapidly and even if India is the market leader in this segment, the money will never be too much, since India has invested over $110 million in the four operational satellites. By contrast, ISRO stands to make big bucks by obtaining such a small slice of another market—the launching business. With the repeated successes of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) programme, ISRO now has the capability of launching satellites weighing up to 1,200 kg. And it is keen to use this capacity for commercial purposes.
It was with this aim that ISRO signed an agreement last year with Arianespace, the world's largest commercial launcher. Under the agreement, the two companies will jointly market the capacity for launching microsatel-lites (satellites weighing about 200-300 kg). "We will together sell capacities in PSLV and our own launchers. And then whichever launcher can take a particular satellite up first will get the money too," says Jean Marie Luton, chairman and chief executive officer of Arianespace.
This agreement could see ISRO emerge as a world leader in launching micro-satellites. The two companies have just finalised the study for compatibility between the two launch systems. This is a crucial document since both ISRO and Arianespace will henceforth advise customers on how their microsatellites can be compatible to both systems. "This requires only a minor modification in the design and if we can inform the customer rightaway, then he is prepared to have his satellite launched by either system," says Luton.
ISRO has already got its first customers for PSLV—it will launch a German and a Korean satellite in May from the Sriharikota High Altitude Range (SHAR) in Andhra Pradesh. But the real orders are expected to flow in from the bilateral agreement with Ariane-space, which is the clear global leader in satellite launching, with over 50 per cent of the market-share. ISRO officials hope to be able to gain a chunk of the world market with the help of this agreement.
The market is huge and growing rapidly. Last year, the total launching business was worth about $15 billion, with a growth rate of close to 10 per cent, this despite the fact that Southeast Asian countries, which had accounted for a significant portion of satellites for telecommunications and broadcasting in the early '90s, were largely absent from the scene. As the market in Southeast Asia shows signs of revival, ISRO could find itself in the midst of large scale orders, either directly or through Arianespace.
According to ISRO, the world market in satellites is consolidating and has two basic trends. At the upper end, the satellites are becoming heavier—more than 5 or 6 tonnes, equipped with a pile of the latest gadgetry. And on the lower end, the satellites are shrinking. A large number of satellites, especially communications or broadcast ones being used by smaller cor-porates, are today in the range of 100-300 kg. And these are the potential customers for ISRO.
And Arianespace finds PSLV no handicap in the world market nor does it feel that the clients would shrink away from it. Didier Aubin, marketing director of Arianespace, also says that PSLV, with its successful launches, has established itself as a reliable system and customers would have no problems about the fact that they could be launched by either Arianespace or PSLV. "PSLV is a very reliable system and I don't believe it would either weigh on the mind of the customer or make a difference to him in placing the orders," Aubin says.
ISRO is also extremely upbeat about its imminent emergence as a player in the commercial launch market, which so far has been dominated by the French, Russians and the Americans, with the Chinese emerging as new players. "There is a significant shift in the entire space world. While there are big satellites being launched, a larger number of people are now back to microsatellites that perform specific and specialised functions. And we with our PSLV can be a player of significance in this segment of the market," Vikram Desai, first secretary (Space) of the Indian embassy in Paris, told Outlook.
Another crucial opening for ISRO could come from the European Union. The EU has plans of launching its own Global Positioning Satellite network on the lines the US and the Russians already have. But due to the large budgets involved, the EU is keen to rope in other players as well. It is looking at Japan, India and Korea. And EU officials say ISRO with its proven launch capabilities could play a significant role in the whole programme.
ISRO itself is yet to formulate a response to the proposal, says Kasturirangan. "We are still looking at how this plan fits in with our overall plans, but of course, it is a very huge programme." He, however, is much more sure about ISRO. "The May launch is just a beginning. PSLV is a well-established name and so is ISRO. With our capabilities firmly established, we can now look forward to getting more orders for our PSLV capacity." Yet Kasturirangan acknowledges that marketing is still a problem for ISRO. It has neither the infrastructure, nor the budgets required for this high-technology and high-budget market. But, it is here that the tie-up with Ariane turns out to be a double whammy for ISRO. With its $7 billion turnover for 1998, Arianespace is the largest player in the market and, of course, has tremendous marketing muscle, backed by a size-able marketing spend as well. ISRO can piggyback on Ariane's marketing team, which clearly will bag many more orders than ISRO's Antrix, the marketing cell that was set up last year.
However, Arianespace is quick to deny that it'll play the role of big brother in the relationship. "It's a relationship between equals. Ariane will benefit from it as much as ISRO. It'll immediately augment our launch capacities, if we include PSLV in our pro-gramme and hence we can get more customers who want to see more launches than the average of one per month we did last year. PSLV will help us deliver that extra capacity," says Luton.
But what neither Arianespace nor ISRO are talking about yet is the other very tangible benefit for Arianespace. ISRO has to launch five more Insats in the next three years in order to meet just the demand from Indian broadcasting and telecom industry. And each Insat launch translates into big dollars for the launcher. Insat 2E got $65 million to Arianespace. With ISRO and Arianespace in the same bed, it's unlikely that the orders for Insat launches will go to anyone but Arianespace. Even though Ariane is the most expensive launcher in the world. The average cost of Ariane 5 works out close to $30,000 per kilo of payload—almost thrice as expensive as the comparable Delta heavy lift, that is currently under development.
ISRO justifies the high costs, saying it's not just for the launch, but also for the support systems at ISRO's disposal in Kourou, French Guyana. Also, Ariane's capability of placing the satellite as close to the final orbit as possible means the satellite doesn't have to be moved around much in space, thus enhancing its life. Ariane too emphasises that its overall costs are competitive or it wouldn't have been able to hold its lion's market-share of over 50 per cent in the global market. A share it only wants to increase.