ISRO goes global

Thursday, 30 December 2004, 08:00 Hrs
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NEW DELHI :In 2004 the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) stepped out into the world and took steps to engage it. This marks a watershed in the life of an organisation that has had to rely on its own devices.

During the year, India hosted a high profile conference in Bangalore on Indo-US civilian space co-operation, attended by top NASA officials and a host of US aerospace companies. ISRO is looking at innovative ways to engage multinational aerospace firms like Boeing, to take its own growth to the next level.

ISRO announced at the conference that it had awarded a contract to US-based Raytheon to supply major subsystems for an ambitious satellite-based augmented navigation network, GAGAN. Boeing circulated a press note saying it had US government approval to talk to ISRO on finding common ground.

Experts studying the impact of US strategic and the closely-linked trade policies, however, point out that not much has changed on the ground.

This is despite Kenneth Juster, a US undersecretary in the department of commerce, telling the conference that over 90 per cent of export licence applications were either cleared or didn’t need licences. Export of technologies needed by ISRO continue to be stringently monitored by the US state department.

Licences continue to be denied most of the time. Plus, in the run up to the US presidential elections, ISRO saw little change in the policy of disallowing exports of technologies from US-based firms which could speed up ISRO’s programmes.

US exports of high technology to ISRO or related ‘entities’ was only at some $57 million last year. G Madhavan Nair, ISRO’s chairman has gone on record saying it could be tripled or more.

Some think tanks explain this caution by pointing to the use of an ISRO-developed engine in the country’s ballistic missile, Agni, or even the organisation’s capability to provide satellite imagery with a one-metre resolution for border security.

ISRO officials say these were no more than spin-off applications and never at the heart of their strongly civilian mandate. Nair was being both pragmatic and elliptically eloquent when he suggested at the conference that “perhaps it will take some time for mutual trust to develop”.

Engines for ballistic missiles apart, the year also showed how tightly protected the third party satellite launch services market is.

ISRO has launched four small satellites, including a Korean and a German payload. Three more such satellites will be launched in late 2005 or early 2006, onboard ISRO’s polar satellite launch vehicles, for Singapore, Europe and Indonesia.

But, a cartel, including American and European private launch vehicle companies, backed by their respective governments, will not allow parties with commercial satellites that are significant for other satellite based downstream businesses to seek ISRO’s services.

“The September 11 attacks on the US made matters worse,” a senior ISRO official said. “There was already overcapacity in the launch vehicle market and the reduction in the number of satellites launched post-9/11 didn’t help,” an official said.

Having thrived on being stonewalled by the West, ISRO is looking at alternatives.

The Next Steps initiative on co-operation in high technology areas, started by former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and American President George Bush is part of the effort to remove political roadblocks in the way of ISRO’s commercial ventures.

At the same time, outsourcing, which Indian IT has shown works for American firms, is being explored as a possibility in space as well.

“We have perfected and standardised the two-tonne class satellite’s platform,” says a senior ISRO official, “which can be customised to go with any payload.”

The platform typically comprises 60 per cent of the weight of a satellite and supports the payload, which forms the actual mission of a satellite. “There are very few manufacturers who have a proven platform with a space heritage.”

So, US firms are being offered the attractive option of having ISRO build platforms very cost effectively for payloads of their choice. This could open up a new revenue stream for ISRO’s marketing arm, Antrix, which last year did sales of nearly Rs 300 crore.

As part of the process of becoming bigger, ISRO has been raising its engagement with private companies to make parts for satellites, rockets and even rocket fuel for its missions.

“Today we have a robust network of private companies who supply products and services. Up to 70 per cent of the value of any given project is accounted for by our private sector partners,” ISRO officials say.

The year saw ISRO get a more public image, not the least because its first inter-planetary mission, the Chandrayaan moon mission, got the nod from the Centre.

A second launchpad at Sriharikota reached near operational stage and ISRO publicised plans to build an entirely new two-and-a-half stage launch vehicle that would give it the capability to put satellites weighing four tonnes in geo-transfer orbits. Christened the GSLV Mark III, would be built over the next four years.

ISRO is working on two other projects. One is the Space Capsule Recovery Experiment and air breathing engines. The latter, involving what are called scramjet engines, has perhaps a time frame of 20 years for its development.

The idea was to make launches cheaper by getting at least a part of the rocket to get its oxygen from the atmosphere instead of carrying it along in liquid form. Presently experiments are at very initial stages, ISRO says, though it has conducted some tests on the ground.

Source: IANS
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