Celebrating Diwali: GSLV MK III propels India into the big Space league

The GSLV MK III successfully placing 36 satellites, weighing 5796 kg into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) on October 23 will give a big boost to India’s space ambitions on multiple fronts.

The heaviest payload ever launched from the domestic spaceport signals the entry into a lucrative but competitive launch services market. Space X of Elon Musk, Blue Origin of Jeff Bezos, Arianespace, Roscosmos of Russia, long March of China and the US are established players.

The GSLV MK III (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) is India’s heaviest rocket weighing 640 tonne, which is equivalent to 5-6, fully loaded commercial planes weight.  It is versatile and has the capability to carry 4-6 tonne satellites into the GTO and up to 8 tonne into the LEO.

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The consistency of the rocket’s performance will bolster the Indian Space Research Organisation’s ( ISRO) upcoming ‘big ticket’ projects like the Chandrayaan-3 ( Moon mission), the Gaganyaan (Humans in Space) and the Aditya L-1 ( mission to the Sun). All these are scheduled I in the next one year.

The GSLV power
The development of the GSLV has taken nearly 25 years with all its twists and turns. Some of which were captured in the controversial movie on rocket scientist Nambi Narayanan’s life made by Madhavan titled ‘Rocketry’.  From facing US sanctions to receiving 7 cryogenic rocket stages from Russia to finally developing the Vikas engine and building our own rocket, it has been a roller coaster ride for the ISRO.

From 2001, the GSLV has seen three versions and about 14 launches (8 success, 4 failures and two partial success). The MK III version was first tested in 2014. It has done 4 launches including the Chandrayaan-2 of 2019 and the GSAT 29, a 3,400 kg payload, the highest built by India in 2022.

The GSLV-MK III also referred to as Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (LVM3), is 43.5 metre high and 4 metre in diameter, capable of lifting off with 640 tonne payload. It is a three-stage vehicle with two solid motor strap-on, a liquid propellant core stage and a cryogenic stage.

The commercial opportunity
By successfully placing the 36 satellites (each weighing about 150 kg) of the UK-based, WebOne, ISRO has announced its entry into the launch of heavy payloads. It’s commercial arm, the NewSpace India Limited (NSIL) had signed two contracts with the company, in which Bharti Enterprises is a major stakeholder in October 2021.

The ISRO has filled in quickly and efficiently for the OneWeb, which ran into problems with the Russian space agency Roscosmos. Interestingly, Sunil Bharti Mittal, CEO of Bharti Enterprises revealed in an interview to CNBC that the company had paid $350m to the Russian firm. Now, it has suffered loss through delays and funds.
The ongoing conflict between Russia-Ukraine has further aggravated the situation. It has also adversely affected satellite-based communication companies, as Moscow is one of the major providers of commercial space launches.

The order taken by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for the commercial launch of OneWeb satellites “could open up billions of inbound dollars in space”,  Sunil Mittal said on October 22, hours before the launch from the Satish Dhawan SHAR spaceport in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. Mittal, whose Bharti Enterprises is one of the biggest investors in OneWeb said two commercial launches have been confirmed with ISRO, “with a cost outlay of Rs 1,000 crore”.

OneWeb has already raised $2.8b against a requirement of $2.2 b. The launch will mark OneWeb’s 14th and will bring its constellation to 462 satellites, more than 70% of the total number of 648 required for it to reach global broadband coverage.  The OneWeb satellites each will help connect towns, villages and local and regional municipalities in the remotest areas to provide communication linkages and thereby bridge the digital divide.  Earlier, the company had announced a distribution partnership with Hughes Communications India Private Ltd. (HCIPL).

For the NSIL, each launch of the GSLV MK III would cost anything between Rs 300 and Rs 350 crore. In addition to the cost advantage, the rocket has demonstrated its versatility to place heavy payloads both in the LEO and GTO spaces—up to 6 tonne and above 4 tonne respectively.

The PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle), with over 50 successful launches is a top choice in the LEO segment for global clients. It created a record by launching 104 small satellites in February 2017. However, it’s capacity is limited to placing payloads of up to 1.75 tonne.

The big ticket missions of ISRO
The next big mission of the ISRO is the Chandrayaan-3 to the moon. It is likely to be launched in June by the GSLV MK III, said Dr S Somnath, the Chairman. The space agency is keen to make amends after its Chandrayaan-2, failed in the last stage of putting Vikram the lander on the lunar surface.

In the meantime, the Chinese have stolen a march over India by landing on the Moon in 2013. In 2019, it landed on the far side of the moon too. However, India has been successful in reporting the major discovery of traces of water molecules in its first mission back in 2009. Its time to be back in the reckoning in the lunar race.

The other major project depending on the GSLV is the Gaganyaan. Though delayed from its target of 2022, the ISRO is making good progress with scrupulously testing every stage of the launch so that there is no problem for the human going into space. The probable candidates have already gone through training in Russia. The crewed launch is expected in 2024. Before that a few unmanned trials are also planned.

Somasekhar Mulugu, former Associate Editor & Chief of Bureau of The Hindu BusinessLine, is a well-known political, business and science writer and analyst based in Hyderabad

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