Success had eluded ISRO a few months ago during its maiden attempt at launching the indigenous cryogenic engine based satellite launch vehicle. And a few days ago, India’s communication satellite INSAT4B has started experiencing trouble, leading to 'partial non-availability of services'. But on July 12, 2010, the story was different with the successful launch of PSLVC15 carrying the 694 kg Cartosat2B as the main payload. This satellite has a high resolution of 0.8 metre, allowing it to photograph objects of very small size. Along with it, four other satellites were put into a 630 km Polar Sun Synchronous Orbit. These four include a 116 kg Algerian satellite ALSAT2A, two nano-satellites from Canada and Switzerland, and a pico-satellite developed by students of engineering colleges in Bangalore and Hyderabad weighing less than one kg.
The fight of PSLVC15 was expected to be a smooth run given the track record of 15 earlier successful launches of PSLV. ISRO was also experienced in putting multiple satellites in orbit during the same launch. In April 2008 it had placed ten satellites in orbit in a single mission. Naturally, putting five satellites together was not a big thing. However, what was important about the latest launch was the successful orbiting of India’s fourth cartographic satellite. Cartosat-2B, along with Cartosat-2 and 2A which are already in orbit, would be able to send back high-resolution images. Now, this constellation of three satellites could provide complete coverage of India’s area of interest. India also has a few more remote sensing satellites in space. The presence of all these satellites together would remove the earlier deficiency in terms of data gaps.
According to ISRO, multiple spot scene imagery sent by this satellite will have many useful applications. The data received would be useful for preparation of cartographic maps, preparation of detailed forest type maps, micro watershed development plans and monitoring of developmental works at village/cadastral level. This satellite would also help in monitoring mining activities which in many parts of the country are going unchecked leading to the formation of mining mafias and causing significant damage to the environment. Satellite technology, being a dual use technology, the defence utility of such systems is obvious. This constellation of cartographic satellites should work as ‘eyes in the sky’ for the defence forces as well.
One issue that has generally gone unnoticed during a few recent ISRO launches is ISRO’s interests in the small satellite market. Small satellites are being continuously launched by ISRO both for India as well as for overseas clients in the last few years. During the last few years ISRO has gained a reputation as a reliable launch agency. The global market for low earth orbit is witnessing a surge and ISRO is doing its bit to gain access to this market. During the last three years ISRO has earned more than Rs. 100 crores by undertaking commercial satellite launches. Till date it has launched more than 20 satellites (mostly small satellites) for other countries and currently has orders for approximately ten more such launches.
The launch of Studsat, a student satellite conceptualized and designed by students, is a 780 gm pico-satellite – the first in this category by India. It is an experimental remote sensing satellite with a designed life of six months. Apart from giving exposure to students in rocket science, it is also allowing ISRO to develop a better understanding about the operations of pico-satellites. It has been envisaged by many scientists that the future of satellite technology lies in small satellites. With regard to pico-satellites, it is expected that in future such satellites would work not in ‘solo’ mode but operate jointly as a cluster of few satellites. This is called as ‘swarm’ - a group of satellites working together. They would interact with each other and perform various tasks collectively. Such swarms have utility in many fields including defence.
Another important aspect of the latest PSLV mission is the launch of an Algerian satellite. This is for the first India has launched a satellite for an African country. Particularly, with regard to Africa, this launch needs to be viewed beyond commercial interests. Africa is a region of significant geopolitical importance to India. States like China are committing sustained investments in Africa, including the development of space infrastructure for countries like Nigeria. With this launch it could be said that India has started using ‘space diplomacy’ as a foreign policy tool in Africa. It appears that India is attempting to use ISRO’s expertise both for commercial as well as political purposes. A case in point could the opportunity used by India’s External Affairs minister Mr. S. M. Krishna during his mid-Jun 2010 South Korea visit. Since 1992, South Korea has launched 11 satellites, but all with the help of foreign countries. For the last couple of years South Korea has been attempting to develop its independent space programme. With the help of Russia it is attempting to develop a launch capability though all its attempts so far to launch satellites using Korea Space Launch Vehicle (known as Naro) have failed, the most recent being on June 10, 2010. Sensing an opportunity, Krishna, during his June 17-19, 2010 visit to South Korea, made an offer in the form of a suggestion that South Korean satellites could be launched using Indian launch vehicles, which was immediately accepted by the South Korean government.
The PSVLC15 launch has enhanced India’s capability in the field of cartography and space reconnaissance. Going by ISRO’s track record, particularly that of its PSLV, that India is likely to emerge as a major player in the field of launching small satellites.