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Pandemic helps ISRO pursue privatisation plans

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is looking at a major launch ahead of Independence Day. On August 12, its workhorse Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV F-10) will lift off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC), the spaceport at Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, and lob the Earth Observation Satellite (EOS-03) into orbit. It will provide near real-time observation of the Indian subcontinent under cloud-free conditions, and at frequent intervals.

This will enable quick monitoring of natural disasters, episodic events and any short-term events. It will obtain spectral signatures for agriculture, forestry, mineralogy, disaster warning, cloud properties, snow and glaciers and oceanography. It will also ensure a quantum jump in disaster mitigation.

Weighing about 2.27 kgs, EOS-03 is India’s first state-of-the-art agile earth observation satellite. It will first be placed in a highly elliptical geosynchronous transfer orbit before the satellite reaches the final geostationary orbit, about 36,000 kms above Earth, using its onboard propulsion system.

The launch of the satellite was scheduled for March 5 last year but was cancelled because of a technical glitch a day earlier. The Covid-19 outbreak and the resultant lockdown forced ISRO to put off the launch further. With the marked improvement in workforce attendance at the SDSC after the second wave of the pandemic, the integration of EOS-03 and the launch vehicle and stage-wise checking of all parameters is progressing rapidly. If all goes well, GSLV F-10 / EOS-03 will be the third take off from the spaceport this year. This launch is poised to be a game-changer in some ways. With onboard high-resolution cameras, the satellite will allow the country to monitor the Indian landmass, its oceans and its borders continuously.

ISRO had launched PSLV-C51 with Brazil’s Amazonia-01 and 18 other satellites on February 28 and the Sounding Rocket RH-560 Sourex on March 12 this year. The GSLV F-10 / EOS-03 launch was rescheduled for March 28 this year, subject to weather conditions. A minor issue with the satellite prompted the space agency to plan the launch for April 18 but that was date put off again due to the second wave Covid-induced lockdown.

The Covid pandemic had crippled the majority of ISRO’s space activities in 2020 and continues to have an impact on the space agency’s core activity in 2021 as well. However, it has helped ISRO pursue its privatisation plans. “Our teams worked from home and utilised the time to come out with draft policies to usher in private players,” says ISRO chairman K. Sivan. Apart from coming out with the draft policy to allow private players and transfer medical equipment technologies, the time was used to chart a decadal plan.

This includes development of a heavy-lift rocket, reusable satellite launch vehicle, semi-cryogenic engine, and development flight of the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). Meanwhile, the prestigious Indo-US collaboration, the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) Mission, moved ahead with the space agency sending the S band SAR payload.

While the department of space (DoS) recently came out with the ‘Draft National Space Transportation Policy-2020’, it also has a committee going into the provisions of the Space Activities Bill with legal consultations under way to finalise it. Last year, the government unveiled the draft Space-based Communication Policy of India 2020 (Spacecom Policy-2020), the draft Space-based Remote Sensing Policy and the Revised Technology Transfer Policy guidelines.

Preparations have also begun to constitute a full-fledged Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), which will be the regulatory body for private players, and will be used to enlist those from within and outside the space agency.

Meanwhile, DoS’s commercial arm, New Space India Limited (NSIL), apart from buying satellites made by ISRO, will also lease assets from it. “NSIL will acquire three communication satellites—GSAT-20, GSAT-22 and GSAT-24–and operate them. “We expect an investment of about Rs 2,000 crore each year over the next five years and we plan to hire 300 highly skilled people,” says NSIL chairman and managing director G. Narayanan. As a central public sector enterprise, the company aims to fund its five-year expansion activities through a combination of debt and equity.

NSIL plans to own and operate launch vehicles and satellites to offer a complete range of commercial services. This is expected to help free research teams from routine activities to focus on cutting-edge research. It is also to transition progressively from supply-driven to demand-driven mode. NSIL has already begun negotiations with users on communication satellite capacities to finalise requirements for new satellites (mostly communication satellites). Since inception, NSIL has extended launch services to 45 customer satellites through four Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle missions with Amazonia-1, the orbiting Brazilian satellite, its first commercial mission. India Today

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