The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is gearing up to test-launch its Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) by December. SSLV, which has been in development for a few years now, is a three-stage launch platform capable of lifting up to 500 kilograms to the Low Earth Orbit and 300 kilograms to the sun-synchronous orbit.
NewSpace India, the commercial arm of ISRO, will be tasked with the manufacturing of the launch platform with Indian industry partners after the development and trial phase is complete. The new company will also be the sole entity responsible for providing end-to-end launch services using the SSLV.
By developing a small satellite launch platform at a time when the private players such as SpaceX are working on heavy platforms to carry humans and supplies to the Moon and beyond, ISRO aims to achieve two things.
One, capture the emerging small satellite launch service market.
The market for small satellites, no larger than a microwave in most cases, is growing quickly. At least 328 smallsats (weighing up to 600 kg) were launched in 2018, a report by Bryce Space and Technology says. This figure rose to 389 in 2019.
The market is currently estimated to be around $3.6 billion and is likely to grow to over $15 billion by 2025. ISRO, which is already a significant player in the global satellite launch market, wants a part of this large pie.
Two, reduce turn-around time and provide on-demand launch services, which will bring down the per kilogram launch cost.
If service providers use heavy-lift vehicles, users will have to wait for months before their satellites reach orbit. This is because a service provider needs a particular number of satellites for every launch to make a profit and will wait until it reaches that number (or increase the launch-cost for the users). The heavier the launch vehicle, the larger the number of satellites required to make a profit.
This led to service-providers launching satellites at long intervals and small satellite users had to wait for these opportunities. For the users, long wait time resulted in financial costs and losses in terms of business opportunities.
However, if a service provider uses a small vehicle, the number of satellites required to make a profit comes down. This reduces the waiting time for the user.
In many cases, the service provider can provide on-demand launch options.
In absence of a dedicated small satellite launch vehicle, ISRO has been using the ‘ride share’ method of launching such satellites in which small satellites piggyback on launch missions paid for mostly by larger satellites.
The SSLV, reports say, can be assembled with its payload in just three to five days. A large rocket needs 30-40 days of work before it is ready for launch.
Given its small size and quick turnaround time, the SSLV needs a significantly small workforce and lesser infrastructure for launch.
All these factors reduce the per kilogram launch cost.
Two launches of the SSLV have been booked even before its first flight. In its demonstration flight, SSLV will carry an Indian military satellite of the 500-kg class to the Low Earth Orbit. In the second launch, which will be the first commercial launch of the vehicle, it will lift satellites to the Low Earth Orbit for a US-based customer.