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Success of GSAT-8 and Future of India’s Space Programme

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 25, 2011

    India's advanced communication geostationary satellite, GSAT-8, was successfully launched on May 21, 2011. The satellite was put in orbit from French Guiana by the Ariane-V launch vehicle. Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) master control facility has already started acquiring signals from this satellite. It would take a few more days for this satellite to become fully operational.

    GSAT-8 has 24 transponders to expand India's Ku-band relay potential. This band offers certain advantages to the user. For instance, it requires a smaller dish size of antenna and has cheaper operational cost. Also, television transmission does not get degraded during rains. Presently, India has seven communication satellites in space, which provide 151 transponders. With GSAT-8, India’s transponder capability has increased to 175. There is a need to boost this capacity further mainly because it has significant commercial utility.

    GSAT-8 is also equipped with the two-channel GAGAN (GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation) system., which is meant for boosting GPS signals to achieve accuracy of three metres. This would assist civil aviation in a big way. GAGAN has been delayed because of the absence of suitable hardware in space. The first GAGAN transmitter was integrated into the GSAT-4, which was part of the launch mission that failed on April 15, 2010. GAGAN is expected to expand its reach up to Africa and South East Asia.

    ISRO has plans for developing an autonomous regional navigation system called the Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS) consisting of seven satellites to cater for the requirements over the region. GAGAN would support this effort too. It is important for the Indian security establishment to factor the accuracy provided by GAGAN in their planning. At least, theoretically, if India has to conduct an operation on the lines of the US Operation Geronimo in Abottabad, GAGAN offers a better system for location identification and navigational support for flying machines.

    In the case of GSAT-8, it was important to depend on France to launch this 3,100 kg made-in ISRO satellite, because India is yet to master the art of putting heavy satellites (say 2500 kg or more) into space. In December 2010, the Indian geosynchronous launch vehicle GSLV-FO6 carrying the 2,310 kg GSAT-5P satellite had failed. Earlier, in April 2010, the GSLV-D3 mission with the first Indian made cryogenic engine had also suffered failure. These twin failures were a significant blow to the Indian space programme because it demonstrated the limitations of India’s indigenously developed cryogenic technology and has raised questions about the GSLV programme. India has major ambitions in space and has achieved some significant successes in the past. However, the failures in 2010 are expected to cause significant delay in the country’s space programme, given that ISRO is expected to conduct an overall audit of its GSLV programme to identify vulnerabilities before undertaking any future launches. This appears to be a correct decision in the overall interest of the Indian space programme. However, this means that India’s second moon mission (Chandrayaan-2) is likely to get delayed further and could also impact some other programmes.

    At present the principal question is: what is the future of ISRO’s indigenous cryogenic programme? How much more time would it take to test this technology again? It looks unlikely that the Russian space agency, which had provided cryogenic engines earlier, is in a position now to do the same given that it has stopped the production of these engines. This leaves ISRO with two options: continue to develop the cryogenic technology; or, continue to rely on outside support for launching satellites.

    India has 30-year-old relationship with the French space agency Ariane. Since 1981, Ariane has been launching Indian satellites and could even be called as the unsung hero of India’s INSAT programme. Till date it has launched 14 satellites for India, and will launch the GSAT-10 as well in 2012.

    At this point it is important for India’s strategic and technological decision makers to take note of two recent events: the success of satellite technology in Operation Geronimo to kill Osama bin Laden and the failure of India’s satellite architecture to identify the location of the accident site of the helicopter carrying the Arunachal Chief Minister. Bin Laden’s killing clearly demonstrates the relevance of satellite technology in the era of asymmetric warfare. On the other hand, India missing the signature of the crashed helicopter brings to the fore the limitations of this technology while at the same time raising questions about the quality of India’s sensor technology and satellite imagery interpretation expertise.

    Presently, the security situation in India’s neighbourhood has become extremely complicated and Indian security agencies are likely to depend more on satellite technologies for the purposes of reconnaissance, communication and navigation. Each of the three Services needs dedicated satellites to cater for its requirements. ISRO was expected to launch a satellite for the Indian Navy in 2011. What is the future of this launch? Will ISRO’s plans, “to go back to the drawing board”, have any impact on India’s security preparedness? If so, does India have a Plan B in place?