Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 14 April 2023

ISRO’s successful LVM-3 launch

Source: By Anonna Dutt: The Indian Express

On 26 March 2023, the second commercial launch of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s LVM-3 saw 36 OneWeb satellites placed in orbit. This was also the second launch that ISRO performed for OneWeb, a UK-based company supported by the UK government and India’s Bharti Enterprises.

It was the sixth launch for India’s heaviest rocket LVM-3 – which includes the launch of Chandrayaan-2 in 2019 – and the second one where it demonstrated the capability of launching multiple satellites in low earth orbit (LEO). The eighteenth launch of OneWeb satellites brought the constellation’s total number of satellites to 618. The company intends to use 588 active satellites in its first-generation constellation to provide global connectivity at high speed and low latency.

“OneWeb’s high-speedlow-latency solutions will assist in connecting communities, businesses, and governments worldwide, demonstrating the unparalleled potential of LEO (low earth orbit) connectivity,” the company said in its press release, also stating it would help India’s “towns, villages, municipalities, and schools, including the hardest-to-reach areas across the country.”

India has been concentrating on increasing its share of the global commercial space market ever since the country decided to open the space sector to private players in 2020. It is one of the world’s major space-faring nations, but it only has 2% of the commercial market at the moment. With 36 OneWeb satellites launched in October 2022, the heavy launch vehicle entered the commercial market.

How ISRO’s OneWeb launch happened

OneWeb was initially supposed to launch its satellites through the Russian space agency. It cancelled the plan after the agency halted the launch amid the Russia-Ukraine war, seeking an assurance from the UK government-backed company that the satellites wouldn’t be used against them and that the British government would sell its stake.

Sunil Bharti Mittal, executive chairman of OneWeb, said: “India stepped up, when we needed them the most. We had a big setback with the Russia-Ukraine war — six launches that were contracted and fully paid for were taken out. Now, not only OneWeb is struggling to get the money back, it has also lost 36 satellites, three very valuable, and importantly lost nearly a year.”

Europe’s ArianeSpace was not viable as it had retired its workhorse Ariane5 rocket and there were significant delays with Ariane6. Mittal said once Russia’s Soyuz rockets were out there were few options left, with the remaining satellites in the constellation of over 600 satellites launched by SpaceX and ISRO.

SpaceX, despite developing a similar satellite-based network named Starlink, launched some of the OneWeb satellites. And India, through two LVM3 launches, has put in orbit 72 OneWeb satellites.

India’s plans to increase commercial launches

The launches not only established LVM3 as a commercial vehicle propelling ISRO’s entry into the commercial heavier launch market, but it also earned the agency upwards of Rs 1,000 crore.

The service provided to OneWeb, for which the space agency had to move around a few of its missions, ended up earning it one of the highest revenues. And, over the years, there has been an increase in funds that the space agency has generated.

The government plans to increase India’s 2% share in the commercial market to 10% by 2030 through commercial launches by ISRO and launches offered by private companies like Skyroot and Agnikul, which are in the process of developing their own launch vehicles.

Keeping the commercial sector in mind, ISRO has also developed the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), which is meant to provide on-demand launch services commercially. It has a low turn-around time of days and costs much less than the current workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Two development flights of the SSLV have been completed – one successful, one partially successful – and it has been inducted into the ISRO fleet.

Till date, ISRO has launched 384 foreign satellites from at least 36 countries, with at least 10 dedicated commercial missions and several other Indian missions where they were carried as co-passenger satellites. The highest number of these commercial launches has been by companies from the United States.

A report of the parliamentary standing committee on the budget of the space agency said that there has been an increase in the revenue generated by ISRO’s commercial arm New Space India Limited, created in 2019. As per the report, revenue generated by NSIL has increased from Rs 1,731 crores in 2021-22 to a projected Rs 3,509 crores in 2023-24.

This was an increase of 100% and the report added, “The Committee appreciates the achievements of NSIL in such a short period of time and recommends the Department to provide all support to NSIL to enable it to act as an agency of international character and quality.”

But it is not just the commercial arm, the revenue generated by the department has also increased. The committee noted that the revenue generated by the Department of Space increased from Rs 929 crore in 2020-21 to Rs 2,780 in 2022-23. This is an increase of nearly 200% and with the budget allocation for 2023-24 being the least in the last three years, the committee noted: “This is also suggestive of the fact that the Department is transitioning from a research based institution to a more commercially oriented agency with buoyant internal revenues.”

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