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ISRO’s new commercial arm gets first booking for launch

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NSIL will deal with capacity building of local industry for space manufacturing, ISRO officials said. (Picture for representational purpose)

NEWSPACE INDIA Limited (NSIL), the newly created second commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation, has bagged its first contract. A private US space services provider has booked ISRO’s Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), which is yet to be tested, for launching a spacecraft.

The US provider, Spaceflight, announced on August 8 that it has clinched a deal with NSIL for using the second developmental flight of the under-development SSLV rocket to launch a spacecraft for an "undisclosed US-based satellite constellation customer".

"SSLV is perfectly suited for launching multiple microsatellites at a time and supports multiple orbital drop-offs. We’re excited to add SSLV to our launch portfolio and manage many launches together — first to LEO (low earth orbit) mid-inclinations this year and SSO missions starting in the fall of 2020," Curt Blake, CEO and President of Spaceflight, said.

"We are taking advantage of the growth in the small satellite market to deliver more launch options with the mini-launcher, and look forward to many more launches with Spaceflight," NSIL director D Radhakrishnan said.

Explained

Deepening ties with private industries

There are more than 500 industries contributing to ISRO programmes at present; more than half of the project budget outlay for space programmes flows to these industries. ISRO is looking at deepening these ties through NSIL with private players manufacturing some of the high turnover rockets like the PSLV and the SSLV, which has been indigenised 100 per cent over the years.

Spaceflight has had nine launches in the past with ISRO involving over 100 spacecraft on the workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Spaceflight has in the past tied up with Rocket Lab and SpaceX among others to provide launch services.

ISRO’s SSLV was originally scheduled to have its first development flight in July but the flight has been pushed to the end of the year. One of the mandates of NSIL is to mass produce and manufacture the SSLV and the more powerful PSLV with the private sector in India through technology transfers.

The SSLV can carry satellites weighing upto 500 kg to low earth orbit while the PSLV can launch satellites weighing in the range of 1,000 kg.

The SSLV "is the smallest vehicle at 110-tonne mass at ISRO. It will take only 72 hours to integrate, unlike the 70 days taken now for a launch vehicle. Only six people will be required to do the job, instead of 60 people. The entire job will be done in a very short time and the cost will be only around Rs 30 crore. It will be an on-demand vehicle," ISRO chairman K Sivan had said earlier this year.

In May, at an event to introduce NSIL to industry players, Sivan had said that the Indian industry had formed a consortium for the production of PSLV and that it should come together to produce the SSLV as well once it is tested. Sivan said about 15 to 20 SSLVs would be required every year to meet the national demand alone.

The aim of NSIL, which was mentioned in the Budget by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, is to use research and development carried out by ISRO over the years for commercial purposes through Indian industry partners.

There are more than 500 industries contributing to ISRO programmes at present; more than half of the project budget outlay for space programmes flows to these industries.

ISRO is looking at deepening these ties through NSIL with private players manufacturing some of the high turnover rockets like the PSLV and the SSLV, which has been indigenised 100 per cent over the years.

Between the year 2008 and 2013, ISRO poured Rs 143 crore into a unit of the Kerala Minerals and Mines Ltd to build capacity to manufacture titanium sponge, a key alloy used for rocket engines.

When KMML began manufacturing titanium sponge around 2014, India became only the seventh country to make the alloy — and world prices dipped from Rs 7,000 per kg to Rs 900 a kg. ISRO has now stopped all imports of titanium sponge and relies only on the nearly 140 tonne-per-annum indigenous production at the 500 tonne-per-annum KMML plant in Kerala.

Similarly, with a Rs 14-crore investment in the NonFerrous Materials Technology Development Centre at Hyderabad, ISRO is now producing a rare copper alloy known as Russian copper — used as a key material in cryogenic rocket engines — and has received inquiries for supply to Russia itself.

ISRO, which imported aluminium alloys at a cost of Rs 9 crore in 2002, has also now completely indigenised production with an investment of Rs 4.8 crore.

The result of this drive is evident in products like the PSLV rocket, which has done 48 missions since 1993. "The PSLV is now almost 100 per cent indigenised," said Dr P V Venkitakrishnan, director, Capacity Building Programme Office (CBPO), ISRO.

"There are many technologies available for transfer but more private players are required. We want to bring in competition and not do it through the public sector. There is a limitation to PSUs in terms of overheads. One of the ingredients of NSIL will be commercialisation of tech but apart from this, there is also manufacture of PSLV and SSLV," Venkitakrishnan said.

While ISRO’s existing commercial arm Antrix Corporation will handle ISRO’s commercial deals for satellites and launch vehicles with foreign customers, NSIL will deal with capacity building of local industry for space manufacturing, ISRO officials said.