On September 9th India’s space agency conducted its 100th mission when an Indian rocket launched a French satellite.
What will India’s next 100 space missions involve? Should India focus on building fleets of satellites, sending probes to the moon and Mars, human space flight, or perhaps a combination of all of them? An optimal space strategy will focus on a mix of economic, scientific, and strategic missions.
Since 1975, India’s space agency has built 62 satellites and 38 rockets. It initially constructed light rockets that could only put small 50kg to 100 kg scientific satellites to low-earth-orbit (LEO); none of these had significant military or economic capabilities. In the mid-1990s, however, it began launching the more powerful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and sequentially developed the even more powerful Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV)—which uses the PSLV’s first two stages and has a cryogenic engine, initially built by Russia and now built by India, in its third stage.
The reliable PSLV, which has had 21 consecutive successful flights, can carry 1-ton earth observation satellites to LEO. Images from these satellites have found useful economic applications in areas ranging from agricultural and environmental monitoring, to geology and urban planning. The less successful GSLV, which has failed four of its seven flights, can carry 4 ton payloads to LEO or 2 ton communication satellites to the higher Geostationary Earth Orbit (Orbit). Its successor, the GSLV Mark 3, will be able to lift 4 ton communication satellites, capable of carrying a larger number of transponders and facilitating a greater volume of communications, to GEO. It can alternatively lift an 8 ton payload to LEO. Until the GSLV and GSLV Mark 3 are proven, however, India’s space agency will use foreign launchers such as the European Ariane rockets to launch some of its communications satellites, as it has done a number of times over the past decade.
In recent years, on a budget of $1 billion to $1.5 billion, India’s space program has annually conducted two to three space launches. Assuming that the budget increases modestly each year, it can conduct four launches annually over the next five years, and five or more annually in the following five years. Thus, over the next decade, India can launch about 50 satellites or other payloads on Indian rockets and perhaps 15 satellites on foreign launchers. India can make optimal use of these space assets by allocating some 10%-15% of the Indian launches toward strategic military applications; another 10-15% for scientific and developmental missions; the remaining 70-80% for economic applications; and most of the foreign launches for economic applications.
The end result of these more than 100 space missions would be a formidable space force. India can then have a fleet of five to ten dedicated military satellites—one or two each for its army, navy and air force, and one to two for a nuclear command authority. Its PSLV can launch another four to five scientific payloads, such as an astronomy satellite and probes to the moon and Mars. India can work to perfect its GSLV so that it can then reliably carry 2 ton communication satellites to GEO or a 4 ton space capsule to LEO (India’s space agency has conceptualized such space capsules that carry astronauts into space). It can conduct one or two developmental flights of the GSLV Mark 3, so that, after a few additional test flights, it is available for launching 4 ton communication satellites to GEO, or a larger 8 ton space capsule (similar in weight to China’s space capsules) to LEO. India can continue to launch a few satellites for international clients. And it will have about 50 satellites catering to various sectors of its own economy—perhaps 10 for a regional navigational network; 15 – 20 for earth observation; a few for meteorological missions; and 15 – 20 more for communications and other purposes.
Four other developments can significantly augment India’s space efforts.
First, India can build up the ground segment of its space program to make optimal use of the data acquired from its space assets.
Second, it can transfer many of its proven space launch and satellite projects to the private sector, which already manufactures and fabricates the key components for India’s rockets and satellites.
Third, it can continue its international collaboration endeavors.
Fourth, it can begin looking toward its 200th to 300th space missions. Most of these will still focus on economic, strategic, and scientific applications—they will essentially involve replacing the satellites launched in the 100th to 200th missions that will retire after operating for five to ten years of operation. Yet other missions can explore new frontiers such as alternative launch vehicles, a space plane which is presently in a prototype phase, and space capsules for a manned space program. Such a mix of missions will have important national and international ramifications—they will enable India’s space agency to fulfill its original mandate of applying high-technology toward the advancement of India’s economy, and they will affirm India’s status as one of the world’s six major space powers.
Dinshaw Mistry is associate professor at the University of Cincinnati. He specializes in nuclear, missile, and space technology, and is author of “Containing Missile Proliferation.” This piece originally appeared on the Indian Council on Global Relations’ Gateway House.