Role reversal: India to launch French satellites

(Hindustan Times via NewsEdge) An agreement between Indian and French space agencies will give India a larger play in the global satellite launch market, worth $2billion annually.

Astrium, the commercial arm of French space agency Centre National d'etudes Spatiales (CNES) and a lead player in the commercial satellite launch industry, will outsource a large component of its business to Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), according to an accord signed on September 30 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in France.

ISRO chief G. Madhvan Nair, also the chairman of Antrix Corporation, the agency's commercial arm, and Astrium chief executive François Auque signed the agreement.

The agreement is a role reversal for the French agency. For over 20 years, India has been dependent on CNES for launching the Indian National Satellite System (INSAT) communication satellites using its big Ariannespace boosters. (INSAT-1C was the first Indian satellite to be launched by Ariannespace on July 21, 1988). Now, ISRO will launch satellites for CNES, which will be at a cost advantage. The Indian agency's launch costs are up to 35 per cent lower than those of countries like the US and Russia. The first launch is expected in the next three to four months.

'Although India has signed MoUs with 25 countries, this Indo-French compact is the first cooperative agreement,' S. Satish, ISRO's public relations director, told HT. A cooperative agreement enables countries to share more than routine satellite imagery and weather data -- they can launch each other's satellites.

Every year, some 15 countries launch more than 1,600 satellites, but only six, including India, have actual launch capabilities.

ISRO's workhorse launcher, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), has put into orbit over 16 satellites from countries like Italy, Germany, Israel, and Canada.

India, however, is a marginal player in a lucrative global market as the PSLV can only launch satellites that weigh up to 1,600 kg and that, too, into low-earth orbits (200-2,000 km above earth's surface). Most commercial communication satellites have to be placed into geo-stationary orbits of up to 36,000 km.

ISRO is speeding up the development of GSLV-Mark III, which will be able to launch 5-tonne payloads into geo-stationary orbit. 'Only then can ISRO offer excellent bargains in terms of cost,' says a scientist. Heavier the payload, lower the launch cost.

Copyright © 2008, Hindustan Times