India’s maiden launch of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mk III is a remarkable event for India. With the capability to lift 4-tonne payloads, it will be ISRO’s “most muscular” launch vehicle until date. Today’s GSLV Mk III launch finally makes India somewhat self-sufficient in launching heavier communication satellites, which are generally in this weight range.
Until now, India has had to rely on foreign rockets such as the French Ariane 5 to launch heavy satellites. This has been one of the mainstays of Franco-Indian space cooperation. However, it has been expensive for India, with each launch costing India’s exchequer about INR 400 crore. Though other rockets such as Ariane 5 and Delta IV Heavy can launch much heavier payloads (up to 8 tonnes), the GSLV Mk III is still a huge improvement in India’s launch capabilities.
India has been developing satellite launch vehicles since the 1980s. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) has been the workhorse of the ISRO so far, used in many missions including Chandrayaan and Mars missions in 2008 and 2014 respectively. India now hopes to do something similar with GSLV Mk III so that it can be used extensively for commercial launch purposes. India has been making efforts to develop cryogenic engine technology indigenously for decades though the work on the GSLV Mk III began only in the early 2000s. There have also been some delays even going by the ISRO timetable – the Department of Space had originally scheduled the GSLV Mk III launch for 2011-12, according to its Annual Report 2009-2010. Given the complexity involved in the development of the indigenous cryogenic upper stage, it is understandable that this took much longer. Overall, the development of GSLV Mk III is estimated to have cost over INR 300 crore.
There are several reasons why the this GSLV is important for ISRO and India. First, there is the economic imperative. The multi-billion international satellite market is a big attraction for India and it is quite clear that ISRO has its eyes set on this commercial opportunity with the GSLV Mk III launch. A successful launch could give India significant cost advantages in this market, making it a preferred destination for many countries that need to launch heavier satellites in the coming years. ISRO over the years has proved itself to be a reliable and cost effective choice in the PSLV segment for small and medium satellites and gaining proficiency over GSLV Mk III could have a similar impact in the heavy communication satellite launch market. The global satellite launch market has a big focus on launching heavy communication satellites, making it necessary for India to have a presence here for both economic and prestige factors.
Second, it is a demonstration of Indian indigenous space technology, particularly of its cryogenic engines. There is a long and interesting political back-story to this. In the 1980s, New Delhi had approached Soviet Union for the cryogenic engine technology but Soviet Union denied this to India under pressure from the United States due to the then prevailing technology export control regulations. This delayed ISRO’s rocket plans considerably. India then decided to develop these engines domestically, but this took some time. The GSLV Mk-III is also a test for ISRO’s new cryogenic engine, the C-25, which will power the third stage of the GSLV.
Finally, a heavier satellite launch vehicle also means enhanced capacity to undertake deep space exploration in a more serious manner. India’s further deep space exploration and manned space-flight plans require launch vehicles that can carry heavy payloads. With the GSLV Mk-III, India will have this too.
(Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is Senior Fellow and Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She can be reached at email@example.com, tweets @raji143