Almost everything that ISRO has accomplished in the last few years, has already been done before although by only one or two other countries. Monday’s test of a reusable satellite launch vehicle (RLV) is no different. What distinguishes each of ISRO’s missions, however, is the cost: almost all the missions, including the Moon and Mars missions, have been executed at a fraction of the cost of similar missions by other space agencies.
ISRO is by no means the only space agency to be developing reusable systems. Most of the other major space powers also have their reusable launch vehicle programmes in different stages of development.
The successful technology demonstration of a RLV is an attempt by ISRO to bring down the cost of satellite launches, which will make it an even more attractive player in the international market and bring down the cost of its own future missions. This is an important consideration as there have been frequent allegations that ISRO’s missions are a waste of money given that India still struggles to provide people with the most basic of amenities.
Space technology is very expensive. India currently uses two kinds of launch vehicles — PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) and GSLV (Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle). The PSLV is the older of the two and the more successful, having already clocked 30 successful launches. GSLV, which began in earnest only during the 1990s, has had four successful flights but an equal number of failures too. An advanced version of the GSLV, called Mk-III, that will be capable of putting very heavy satellites – up to about 4,000 kg — into space is still under development. The PSLV can carry satellites up to about 1,500 kg in weight.
The average cost of construction of PSLV is about Rs 120 crore. The heaviest version of PSLV, the XL, which launched five British satellites last year, cost Rs 145 crore. GSLV costs about Rs 173 crore, according to information provided by the Department of Space in Parliament last year.
Nearly 80 per cent of the cost of launch vehicles are structural and only 20 per cent are those of fuel or other expendables.
RLV’s development is an attempt to recover the structural costs involved in developing such technologies. The entire structure of the RLV can be used for future missions, thus substantially saving on the costs. The actual saving will depend on the number of missions the reusable vehicle can be used for.
The current development cost for the RLV has been put at about Rs 90 crore. In contrast, the development cost of GSLV, including the Mk-III version, has been somewhere close to Rs 3,000 crore. The final development cost of the RLV will only be known when it is operationalised in about ten years’ time. ISRO’s argument is that it will be substantially cheaper than the PSLV which it is likely to replace. The GSLV will to operate for a few more years.
India has been gaining a foothold in the international satellite launch market mainly because of the cost factor, apart from the credibility it has gained in the last few years. The PSLV has been done most of the foreign satellite launches. Last year, the Department of Space told Parliament that it had earned about Rs 7 billion since 1999 through the launch of 45 foreign satellites. The launch of PSLV-C30, which carried ASTROSAT, besides six foreign satellites, took ISRO beyond the 50 mark in international customer satellite launches. But it is still a small player in a segment dominated by the European, US and Russian space agencies.
The RLV will, hopefully, give ISRO a greater cost advantage in the future.
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