x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Indian space project in disarray after a series of setbacks

The beleaguered Indian space agency will attempt a major satellite launch this month after an embarrassing postponement in May.

NEW DELHI // The beleaguered Indian space agency will attempt a major satellite launch this month after an embarrassing postponement in May. The reasons for the launch delay were not announced, but analysts suspect the Indian Space Research Organisation wanted to avoid any possibility of yet another setback in India's space programme.

India's flagship rocket system, called the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle or GSLV-D3, failed a benchmark test last month, raising concern about the state of India's much vaunted - and heavily funded - space programme. The 2010 budget for the space department is 57.78 billion rupees (Dh4.6bn). "I don't think the programme is in a complete mess, but it is at a turning point," said Asif Siddiqi, a professor of political science at Fordham University in New York. "Their public image has taken a hit. Everyone is talking about it, wondering what the problem is."

The space research organisation had been talking "quite expansively" in the past few years about its ambitious plans for manned space flight, lunar exploration and participation in the lucrative commercial market for telecommunications satellite launches, said Mr Siddiqi, who co-wrote The Future of Human Spaceflight: Objectives and Policy Implications in a Global Context. So far it has been unable to clear an essential hurdle: incorporation of so-called cryogenic rocket technology, which uses ultra-cold fuel, into India's advanced GSLV rocket launcher system.

Such high-prestige projects as manned space flight and telecommunications satellites require advanced cryogenic rocket systems capable of lifting large payloads deep into sun synchronous, or geostationary, orbit. India has a solid and reliable smaller rocket system, called the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), but this can lift only small payloads into so-called low earth orbit, closer to earth.

India established its space agency in 1962 and began launching small satellites in the early 1980s. It now has about 30 small satellites in low earth orbit, using them for disaster relief, environmental tracking and surveillance. But for 20 years, the space agency has been trying - and failing - to use its homegrown rocket technology to reach deeper into space. The GSLV is the latest iteration of Indian launch systems.

The United States, China, France and Japan have all successfully adapted cryogenics into indigenous rocket launcher systems capable of lifting payloads of four tonnes or more into geostationary orbit. As a result, these agencies, especially France's Ariane now dominate the global satellite launch market. Mr Siddiqi described the failed Indian test as a symbolic hit, as well as major practical setback; it highlights India's inability to match the technological prowess of other nations.

Others say that India's space agency is concentrating on the wrong things. Bharat Gopalaswamy, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said India's interest in prestige projects has helped it win major funding increases recently, but it is still having difficulty attracting top-tier scientists, programmers and engineers. Mr Gopalaswamy said India's best and brightest tend to flock to the private sector, especially in IT, which offers higher pay and far greater opportunities than government agencies.

This may be one reason why progress on the GSLV has been so slow. "This is a dangerous trend," he said. "The money and conditions are not attractive to work for government agencies." This issues needs to be addressed, Mr Gopalaswamy said, because India will be able to substantially undercut current pricing in the satelite launch market and generate significant revenues once the Indian-engineered GSLV is operational.

The Indian Space Research Organisation's greatest priority should be freeing itself from dependence upon the French in French Guyana, where all major Indian launches take place, he said. "Manned space flight - I don't think it warrants attention at all," Mr Gopalaswamy said. "But we do need to compete in the commercial market, especially for telecom satellites, which we cannot do at this stage." Mr Siddiqi warned that if India fails to produce a reliable rocket launcher, it will lose any price advantage to higher insurance premiums. "The gross level of purchase may be low, but added overheads may not make it cost-effective unless they have a robust launch vehicle that launches frequently and is glitch free," he said.

Mr Siddiqi also warned that the United States has placed restrictions on the export and use of US-manufactured products, and this could inhibit Indian participation as well. @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae