Saturday, May 07, 2005

India's growing space launch prowess

India's growing space launch prowess

Just 18 minutes after the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota, it deposited the 1,560 kg Cartosat-1, India's 13th remote sensing satellite, and then Hamsat, which weighs a mere 42 kg, in their designated orbits some 600 km above the earth. The uneventfulness of PSLV's flight is taken for granted these days. In the past decade, the Indian Space Research Organisation has launched eight PSLVs and three Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLV) without encountering failure even once. ISRO has done India proud by endowing it with the capability to build and launch a variety of satellites in a way that is as reliable as it is valuable. At hand to watch Thursday's launch was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam; it bears recall that he led the team that gave India its first launch vehicle, the SLV-3, which was successfully sent aloft in July 1980.

This time the President witnessed the first launch to be carried out from the newly built Second Launch Pad. ISRO began considering it in the early 1990s in the realisation that dependence on a single pad was too risky. Accidents could occur and serious damage to the pad could derail the country's launch programme. There were, for instance, some heart-stopping moments at the first attempt to the launch the GSLV in March 2001 when the launch had to be aborted just a second before lift-off and some foam insulation on the rocket caught fire. (Happily, on that occasion, automatic extinguishers put out the flames swiftly and the rocket was successfully fired a month later.) The second pad is also needed to handle the vastly more powerful GSLV Mark-III, which is expected to fly before the end of this decade. The second pad has been designed to provide greater flexibility. As with the Space Shuttle of the United States and Europe's Ariane rockets, Indian launchers can now be assembled on a mobile platform in a separate building and then moved to the pad a few days before launch. With this system, there can be one rocket at the pad while another is being integrated in the Vehicle Assembly Building. The first launch complex, on the other hand, can handle only one launcher at a time, as the rocket is assembled right on the pad.

The time has certainly come for India to roll out a powerful campaign to secure launch orders from other countries. The capability to build and launch satellites must be put together as a package that is attractive, especially to developing countries. China has been doing precisely that. It joined hands with Brazil to create the China-Brazil Earth Resource Satellites (CBERS) and in December 2004 it won its first order to build and launch a communications satellite for Nigeria. For this sort of project to come India's way, the country's political leadership must take the initiative in overcoming hurdles (by getting U.S. export control procedures simplified) and persuading heads of other governments to utilise Indian capabilities.

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