India is stacked and ready to join the space age

India is stacked and ready to join the space age

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On Thursday afternoon, for a mere 15 million U.S. dollars, India launched a meteorological satellite into “geo-synchronous” transfer orbit some 36,000 kilometres above the equator using a modified version of its highly successful space workhorse, the polar satellite launch vehicle (PSLV).

So far, the versatile PSLVs have been limited to injecting satellites, both Indian and foreign, into polar, “sun-synchronous” orbits in a loop around the poles at a modest height of between 800 and 900 km. “If we succeed with this, we can then think of launching communications satellites on the PSLV,” said P S Goel, one of the directors of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) which has its headquarters in the southern city of Bangalore.

Launching communications satellites is expensive because they have to be positioned 36,000 km out in space and that calls for larger rockets with larger motors using more sophisticated fuels than the PSLV.

According to V R Katti , programme director, to help along the PSLV (PSLV-C4), METSAT itself was built lighter using space-age, carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) instead of aluminium. “CFRP met the requirements of being light while still being a good conductor of electricity,” he said.

ISRO officials say that when India spent 20 million dollars for a PSLV launch three years ago, China spent 12 times as much for a comparable Long March 3B rocket. The officials expected a rising demand for the launch of low-orbit satellites and the PSLV perfectly fit the bill especially because of its record for reliability.

According to an Indian space research official, an indigenous version of the Russian cryogenic engine has been successfully test-fired at a facility in southern Tamil Nadu state earlier this year. There has also been criticism of India’s satellite programme, particularly that its earth-observation birds as having military capability, but ISR’s chairman K Kasturirangan has denied this.

India lays emphasis on international cooperation for its space programme. For example, in March this year the Indian Space Research Organisation signed a memorandum of understanding with the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) that covers cooperation in satellite technology and training programmes.

ISRO and the French National Space Agency (CNES) are jointly studying the climate using the joint satellite mission ‘Megha Tropiques’, under which a PSLV is due to launch a French satellite in 2005.