GSLV Mk III (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle) M1, the heaviest rocket made by ISRO till date, successfully launched India’s second lunar mission on July 22. Mk III is India’s most powerful launch vehicle built to lift satellites weighing up to 4 tons into the Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit or about 10 tons to Low Earth Orbit. This is about twice the capability of current GSLV Mk II, and more than thrice the capacity of ISRO’s old workhorse PSLV. But how does the GSLV compare in the international launch market?
- All heavy lift rockets launched by the US, Russia, China, Japan and Europe have payload capacity of at least 2.5 times — 22 ton on an average.
- GSLV or Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle is classified as a medium-lift launch vehicle (MLV). An MLV is is capable of lifting between 2,000-20,000 kg to LEO.
- SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is the most powerful launch vehicle in the world and the second most powerful rocket ever built. It is bested by only Saturn V, the rocket that launched Apollo astronauts to the moon 50 years ago.
- Compared to GSLV Mk III which can carry up to 4-ton payload to Moon, the Falcon Heavy can carry a similar payload to Pluto.
- US-based United Launch Alliance operates the Delta IV Heavy, which is an expendable heavy lift launch vehicle and is the second heaviest rocket in operation after Falcon Heavy. It is capable of lifting 23.8 ton to LEO and 14.2 ton to GTO.
- The other workhorse in heavy category is ESA’s Ariane 5. With 70+ missions so far, Ariane 5 can carry more than 21 tons to LEO and about 7 tons to GTO.
- Russia’s Soyuz 2, China’s Long March 2F, Long March 3B, Long March 3C and Long March 7, Japan’s H-11A by built by Mitsubishi and US’s Falcon 9 built are the other operational vehicles in medium lift launch category.
- Falcon 9 Full Thrust, designed and operated by SpaceX, can carry expendable payload of over 22.8 ton to LEO; and expendable 8 ton to GTO.
- Falcon 9 is also partially reusable and has been launched 52 times to the GSLV’s three times so far.
- The cost of launch each new SpaceX Falcon 9 is about $62 million and reused version approximately $50 million, compared to $54 million that it takes to launch a GSLV Mk III.
- The price to launch the Russian Soyuz-2.1 rocket comes to around $48.5 million, the state-owned Glavkosmos Launch Services had revealed last year.
- On the other hand, the launch cost of per Long March 3B, which has a payload capacity of 11.5 tons to GEO, is $70 million.
- Delta Heavy’s cost per launch is estimated to be $350 million while the cost of each Ariane 5 launch comes to $165 to 220 million.
However, before being judgmental and dismissive, one must look at what ISRO has achieved with its shoestring budget. Its annual budget allocation this year is $1.4 billion. Just to put this in perspective, NASA’s annual budget for 2019 is $21.5 billion, while ESA’s is somewhere in the range of $6.3 billion.
In fact it is the budget restraints that prevents it from participating in the International Space Station. Despite its limited budget, it is the only fourth space agency to make to Mars and sixth to the Moon (second after NASA), has the world record for launching maximum number of satellites (104) in one single mission, and has always been largely self-sufficient in technology development.