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Indian rockets aim for space market

Mars bid showcases frugal but effective program

by Penelope Macrae

AFP-JIJI

India’s bid to become the first Asian nation to reach Mars sets a new benchmark for frugal interplanetary travel and puts it in a perfect position to grab more of the $300 billion global space market, experts say.

“Everyone wants to do low-cost missions nowadays,” Indian science author Pallava Bagla said. “Don’t underestimate it because it is a low-cost mission.”

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) staged a flawless launch on Nov. 5 of its Mars-bound spacecraft, loaded with a camera, an imaging spectrometer and a methane sensor to probe for life on the red planet.

The mission’s price, a record-low $73 million, “has been an eye-opener” for the world, said Susmita Mohanty, co-founder and chief executive of Mumbai’s Earth2Orbit, India’s first private space enterprise startup.

That is not only because of the mission’s meager price when compared with its U.S. counterpart, NASA’s Maven, which is due to launch Nov. 18 and costs 10 more, but also because “the world was largely ignorant about the advanced nature of India’s space program,” Mohanty said.

India already ranks among the top six space-faring nations in technological capabilities, the others being the U.S., Russia, China, France and Japan, Mohanty said.

India’s successful lunar orbiter mission in 2008 — Chandrayaan-1 — which cost $89 million, got the ball rolling in showing how to carry out space exploration on a minimal budget, and the Mars mission enhances its low-cost reputation.

“India’s space program has always given the biggest bang for the buck,” said Mohanty.

The secret to the Indian space program’s trailblazing affordability — ISRO has an annual budget of $1.1 billion, one-seventeenth of NASA’s — has been “indigenization of the program, which has helped keep costs low,” ISRO spokesman Deviprasad Karnik said. “The launch vehicle — the PSLV (the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle), which is a workhorse — and spacecraft are Indian,” Karnik said. Also, the pay scales of its scientists are far lower than in the West.

Western sanctions that were slapped on India after the nation staged a nuclear weapons test in 1974 gave a major thrust to the space program, and five years ago, the Indian rocket Chandrayaan-1 found signs of water on the moon.

India has come a long way since it began its space program half a century ago when it set up the first rocket launchpad in a coconut plantation in southern Kerala state. A church was the main office, the bishop’s house was converted into a workshop and a cattle shed became the research lab.

Now 21 Indian satellites circle Earth, giving support to telephone operators, broadcast outlets, weather forecasters and providing remote education and health care.

ISRO also earns money from launches through its commercial arm, Antrix, and since 1999 has launched 35 satellites for other nations, including France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, South Korea, Indonesia, Argentina, Israel, Canada, Denmark, Japan and the Netherlands.

But it wants to do more to exploit the global space market, whose 2012 revenues totaled $304.31 billion, according to the Space Foundation, a U.S.-based advocacy and research group, the latest figure available.

Indian ingenuity in cutting costs and “frugal engineering” were on display with the Mangalyaan (Hindi for “Mars craft”) mission.

Lacking a rocket large enough to fire the satellite directly out of Earth’s atmosphere, ISRO had to rely on the famed Indian skill of “jugaad” — creating a cheap alternative solution.

Instead of flying directly to Mars, the 350-ton vehicle will orbit Earth for nearly a month, building up the speed to “slingshot” its way out of Earth’s gravitational pull to embark on its 400-million-km journey.

Even without a major scientific discovery from the mission, getting a spacecraft into orbit around Mars would highlight Indian technology.

“India is sitting on a space gold mine. Indian companies can leverage the impressive portfolio of space products and services that ISRO has developed,” said Mohanty.

Satellite launch industry revenues totaled $2.2 billion in 2012, while worldwide satellite industry revenues were $189 billion, according to the U.S. Satellite Industry Association.

With foreign space agencies increasingly looking to outsource space missions to rein in spending, ISRO could compete for multibillion-dollar contracts, experts say.

Success of the Mars mission is by no means assured, as recent attempts by both China and Japan have failed.

ISRO Chairman Koppillil Radhakrishnan said before the launch that he was unfazed at the mission’s complexity. “If it is a failure, then learn. Failure is a steppingstone for success.”