Saturday, March 4, 2017

Indian Space Program Overview: Success Rate, Launcher Rankings, Budget and Profits, Ambitious Future Plans

On 15th February 2017, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched 104 satellites using a single launcher. It was an excellent example of indigenous engineering. The curiosity to explore more about the organization after its recent achievements lead to this post.

ISRO joined the space party a little late as compared to the countries with highly successful space program. Nonetheless, its accomplishments are pretty astonishing. In the first decade of inception ISRO focussed on building its own launch vehicle which can deliver satellites in orbit.

The ISRO built its first indigenous rocket capable of putting satellites in orbit called as SLV-3 (Satellite Launch Vehicle-3). The project was headed by A. P. J. Abdul Kalam who later became the 11th President of India.

Following table shows the evolution of launch vehicle,

LauncherStatusPayload (in kg)Payload delivery capability
SLV-3Decommissioned40Low Earth Orbits 
ASLVDecommissioned150Low Earth Orbits 
1450Sun-Synchronous Polar Orbits
1750Geosynchronous and Geostationary orbits
2500Geosynchronous Transfer Orbits
5000Lower Earth Orbit
Under development
4000Geosynchronous Transfer Orbits
8000Lower Earth Orbit

  • These payload numbers vary based on the distance of delivery (Lower Earth Orbit, Geostationary Orbit etc), for lesser distance more payload is delivered. 
  • A launcher can have multiple variants for example PSLV-XL variant can lift more load than PSLV-CA

View of all launchers launcher's used by ISRO from left to right - SLV-3, ASLV, PSLV, GSLV, and GSLV Mk-III

source: wikimedia

ISRO is also working on a Reusable Launch Vehicle called RLV-TD (Technology Demonstrator).

So far ISRO has launched roughly 180 satellites for clients from 22 countries.

Maximum number of satellites (114) were from US based clients. Distribution of other countries as follows.

Note: Following two collaborative projects are counted once for every associated country (PEASS satellites: Belgium, Germany, Israel, Netherlands and DIDO-2 satellites: Israel and Switzerland.) 

The commercial arm of ISRO called Antrix Corporation was founded in 1992.

The word Antrix is derived from a Sanskrit word Antariksha (space). At a quick glance, Antrix's financials seems to be headed in a good direction.

Since the year 2009, Antrix Corporation has shown continuous increase in profits

It appears like a good sign that the Antrix Corporation financial parameters demonstrate an upward graph.

However, profits from Antrix are pretty tiny as compared to entire budget of ISRO for time being.

Considering the number of ambitious projects, ISRO runs on a pretty modest budget. 

The following chart will provide an *approximate idea of where it stands compared to other national space programs.

* Numbers vary from 2011 to 2016.

In spite of that ISRO was able to execute successful missions associated with both Moon and Mars in its first attempt.

The graph below will demonstrate how cost-effectively ISRO has completed these interplanetary mission.

The success of these projects has encouraged the organization to set even bigger goals. Here is a list of some very interesting projects with *tentative* timeline.

DestinationCraft nameLaunch vehicleTime
MoonChandrayaan-2GSLV Mk-II2018
VenusIndian Venusian orbiter missionPSLV-XL2020+
MarsMangalyaan 2GSLV Mk-III2020+
JupiterTBDGSLV Mk-III2020+
Note: Budgetary constraints may affect the actual implementation.

Future Avenues

ISRO is working on several initiatives, some of them are critical for technical advancement and commercial success.

A. Launcher Success Rate

PSVL is ISRO's best launcher and one of the biggest technological breakthrough.

It was used in both Lunar and Mars mission by ISRO. The last PSLV mission failure was in 1997, followed by 35 consecutive successes. It is not only ISRO's best but only commercial launcher today.

However if you rank it according to predicted probability of success for next launch attempt, unfortunately it is not even part of top 10. Ed Kyle compiled interesting data of active launchers and their success rate till the end of 2016 at

VehicleSuccessesTriesRealzd RatePred Rate*

* First level Bayesian estimate of mean predicted probability of success for next launch attempt (k+1)/(n+2) where k is the number of successful events and n is the number of trials.

The only other active launcher, GSLV of ISRO ranks 46th in this list with 5 successes out of 10. By looking at the data above you will realize, perhaps more launches could elevate success rate for ISRO's launchers.

Mylswamy Annadurai, the director of ISRO Satellite Centre has announced, ISRO would launch at least one satellite every month in the forthcoming days.

B. Reusable Launchers

In early 2012, ISRO announced it's design of Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD), has been approved by the government. In may 2016, first test flight was successfully launched with targeted altitude of 65 km.

As you can infer from target altitude and suffix TD, it is a prototype technology-demonstrator (TD). ISRO doesn't have a reusable launch vehicle at the moment but expects to have one by 2030.

It would certainly help to implement domestic projects cost-effectively. However the slow development as compared to for-profit-competitors could make it hard to commercialize the technology when it's ready.

Elon Musk who is also know for building business around reusable rockets stated in 2015,  “If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.

C. Man in the Space

ISRO does not have a human-rated launch vehicle but has been working on individual module advancement required for putting man in the space. However a manned Indian mission to space would not be happening before 2020 according to ISRO Chairman Dr. K. Radhakrishnan's interview to NDTV.

D. Deep Space Exploration

Roughly you could categorize deep space or planetary missions in following categories, 

TypeShort Description
Flybysa space probe sent past a celestial body close enough to record scientific data.
Orbitersa space probe that orbits a planet or other astronomical object.
Impactorshard landing a spacecraft on a planet or celestial body
Landerssoft landing a spacecraft on a planet or celestial body (advanced version of Impactor)
Roverssending an exploration vehicle designed to move across the surface of a planet
Sample returna mission with the goal of collecting and returning with samples from an extraterrestrial body
Human landinglanding on a planet or celestial body with a crew or passengers aboard the spacecraft. 

Again this is not a perfect classification but approximately arranged in increasing order of technical difficulty.

The Moon mission demonstrated ISRO's ability of successfully executing mission with orbiter and impactor. The impactor named Moon Impact Probe (MIP) crash-landed on the lunar surface on 14th November 2008 with eleven scientific instruments. One of the instrument helped conclusively confirm existence of water on the moon in late 2009. Similarly, ISRO's mission to Mars was successfully able to insert the orbiter into Mars orbit on 24 September 2014.

In early next year (2018) ISRO plans to return to the Moon with more advanced mission Chandrayaan-2 containing a lunar orbiter, lander and rover, all developed by India.

A similar target is being set for it's second Mars mission Mangalyaan, which might include a lander and a rover in addition to the orbiter.

E. Indigenous Engines for launchers

Arguably the most important metric for the efficiency of a rocket engine is called Specific Impulse defined as impulse per unit of propellant. In simple words, it is the capacity of propellant (the fuel used to generate the energy) to produce the desired effect of the force acting over time. Cryogenic engines, though very painful to develop, provide higher Specific Impulse compared to non-cryogenic engines. It means the rocket would need less fuel in terms of mass to achieve a specific task. That essentially enables higher payload capacity, meaning the ability to put heavier satellites in orbit or heavier spacecraft in space.

ISRO formally started the project to build domestic cryogenic engine in 1994. After 20 years, the indigenously developed engine CE-7.5 successfully launched a satellite using a GSLV rocket. India became the 6th country to develop a cryogenic rocket engine.

It replaced the KVD-1, a fifty-year-old Russian cryogenic engine that powered the upper stage of GSLV Mk-1. The following chart would demonstrate the trend of using domestic engines for powerful rockets, 

LauncherUpper Stage EnginePayload (in kg)OrbitStatus
KVD-1 (Russia)
2500Geosynchronous Transfer Orbits
5000Lower Earth Orbit
CE-7.5 (India)
2500Geosynchronous Transfer Orbits
5000Lower Earth Orbit
CE-20 (India)
4000Geosynchronous Transfer Orbits
Under Development
8000Lower Earth Orbit

The CE-20 - most powerful indigenous engine has undergone multiple successful tests. In fact, ISRO will most probably launch the GSLV Mk-III in the first half of 2017 which would almost double the payload carrying capacity of Indian launchers.

Developing efficient rocket engines is an endless process for any space program. The efficiency measure change with the requirement (high Specific Impulse, High Thrust etc) and stage of the rocket. The following table captures domestically developed rocket engines by ISRO,

EngineVehicleUsePropellantSp Im (s)Thrust (N)Status
CE-7.5GSLV Mk-IIUpperLH2/LOX45473.5 KOperational
CE-20GSLV Mk-IIIUpperLH2/LOX443200 KDevelopment
S200GSLV Mk-IIIBoosterHTPB274.55,150 KOperational
SCE-200GSLV Mk-IIIUpper/MainRP-1/LOX3352,030 KDevelopment
PSLV-1PSLV1stHTPB269486 KOperational
SLV-1PSLVBoosterHTPB253502.6 KOperational
VikasPSLV/GSLV/GSLV Mk-IIISecond/Main/BoosterN2O4/UDMH262680.5-804.5 KOperational

F. Commercialization Strategy

Gopal Raj noted in The Ken, while nanosatellites are set to grow exponentially in number, they will not in terms of revenue for ISRO. A few, large satellite launches will still net higher revenues.

In order to launch larger satellites ISRO would need launchers with more payload capacity. So perfecting GSLV (up to 5000 kg payload) and GSVL Mk-III (up to 8000 kg payload) seems like a critical target.

Consider following data of satellite industry revenue compiled by SIA (Satellite Industry Association) annual report.

Antrix, whose aim is to commercialize ISRO's technology, generated $280 million revenue in 2014-15. Antrix provides services in all four categories listed above. In spite of that, Antrix's revenue share in global market is less than one percent (0.13%). There is a huge opportunity to grow.

Though legalities and other factors could generate hinderance to growing the business in some cases. For example the US has a policy since 2005 which “discourages U.S. commercial satellite operators from purchasing launch services from Indian launch companies”. However pressure form American companies interested in using low cost launch services has lead to government reconsidering this policy and make it easier to launch satellites from India.

The same SIA report states, though global satellite industry grew by of 3%, but the satellite "launch industry" shrinked by 9%.

Perhaps Antrix will have to carefully diversify it's services in all four sectors and strategize how they are going to eat bigger slice of space-cake. Right now it's 70-75% of the revenue comes from Satellite Communication business.

At last, the number of launches also play a vital roles in increasing the revenue. Out of the total of 65 commercial satellite launches in 2014-15 only two were by Antrix.