In a feature article authored by Malavika Vyawahare of the Hindustan Times, New Delhi, spotlights the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) current challenges.
A launch failure, an incommunicado satellite and an unprecedented satellite recall, all in the space of less than a year, may not necessarily harm the SRO’s hard-earned reputation as a trusty launcher of commercial space missions. Yet, it does cast a shadow on missions that are critical to India’s needs, analysts say.
Almost two months after ISRO lost contact with Geostationary Satellite 6A, a communication satellite, the chances of the agency retrieving it are slim. Orbit raising maneuvers have failed, so the satellite is not in the correct orbit. Its power reserves are mostly likely depleted, and it is on its way to becoming space junk.
“We are in the process of planning another satellite to ensure continuity of services,” ISRO chairman K. Sivan said.
Launches are the most spectacular, and most risky, part of a space mission and attention tends to fade once the rocket is out of view. But unlike for commercial launches, the agency’s responsibility for Indian satellites extends beyond placing them in orbit. The satellites have to complete their missions and provide useful data that feeds into everything from communication and navigation services to scientific advancements.
ISRO maintains that its future launch operations have not been affected, but the recent recall of GSAT-11 from a launch station in French Guiana weeks before its scheduled launch suggests the agency is on edge.
“Isro works on a shoestring budget, it cannot afford failures,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head, nuclear and space policy initiative, Observer Research Foundation. “The first thing to consider is the direct monetary losses.”
Like all Indian satellites launched by ISRO in recent years, GSAT-6A was not insured. According to former Isro chairman AS Kiran Kumar, India only has half the number of satellites it requires to meet its needs, ranging from data services to weather prediction, so the loss of each satellite hurts.
Foreign launches are costly, which is why ISRO is trying to develop indigenous capacity to launch heavy satellites like the GSAT-11, which weighs 5,725 kg. The cost of launching Chandrayaan II from India is about half of what it would cost if it were launched from a foreign launch site, according to ISRO.
Recalling a satellite for additional checks adds to the cost, but the loss of GSAT-11 is a chance it is not prepared to take.
“Apart from the monetary losses, it affects strategic operations, as is the case with the GSAT. It means they will have to wait a few more years for the same facility,” said Rajagopalan.
GSAT-6A was an advanced communications satellite that was supposed to complement the GSAT-6, which was launched in 2015 to provide military communications, with a mission life of nine years. They would have boosted communication in difficult terrains and cellular blind spots like deserts and snow-clad mountains with the use of small hand-held devices.
The other service of strategic importance is navigation. Most service providers and institutions rely on GPS, a navigation system developed by the US. The development of an indigenous GPS called NavIC is considered vital to protecting India’s strategic interests, a point that was driven home during the Kargil war in 1999 when the U.S. denied India access to GPS, hampering military operations.