Launch 2020: India’s Flight Rate Declined Due to COVID-19, but Nation Moved Forward with Commercialization

PSLV-C50 lifts off with the CMS-01 satellite. (Credit: ISRO)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s growing space program managed only two domestic launches last year as it was forced to delay the Gaganyaan human spaceflight program and several other high profile projects.

However, India was able to move forward last year on a sweeping commercialization of its state-controlled space industry designed to make the country internationally competitive.

2020 Launch Record: 2-0
2019 Launch Record: 6-0

Launch Vehicle: Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV)
Launch Site: Satish Dhawan Launch Centre

India’s year got off to a good start on Jan. 16 when Europe’s Ariane 5 booster lofted the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) GSAT 30 communications satellite into orbit from the Guiana Space Centre in South America. The satellite has 12 Ku band transponders and 12 C-band transponders to provide communication services to India, Asia and Australia.

India has long used Ariane 5 boosters to launch its heaviest satellites. Use of Europe’s launch services is expected to be increasingly rare due to successful launches of its Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV Mk. II booster.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t until Nov. 7 that ISRO was able to conduct a domestic launch. A PSLV booster orbited the EOS 1 Earth observation satellite for the Indian government. The X-band, synthetic aperture radar satellite was designed to provide data for forestry, agriculture and disaster management activities.

Secondary payloads included: four radio surveillance satellites for Kleos Space of Luxembourg; four Lemur-2 CubeSats for Spire Global of San Francisco, Calif.; and the R2 technology demonstration CubeSat for NanoAvionics of Lithuania.

On Dec. 17, a PSLV rocket orbited the CMS-01 geosynchronous communications satellite for the Indian government. The 1,425 kg (3,142 lb.) spacecraft is providing educational, telemedicine and other serves to India and nearby islands.

Indian Coast Guard recovering ISRO’s Crew module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) at 114 nautical miles South West of Indira point. [Credit: Indian Coast Guard (GODL-India)]

Programs Delayed

In February, four unidentified Indian Air Force officers began training for their Gaganyaan flights in Russia. The training was interrupted for a period due to the pandemic, but it later resumed.

Meanwhile, their ride to space was being delayed. The space agency had planned to launch a prototype of its Gaganyaan crewed spacecraft by the end of 2020. However, the pandemic slowed progress. The flight test has still not been conducted.

ISRO’s goal was to launch a Gaganyaan with astronauts aboard on an Earth orbit mission before the 75th Indian Independence Day on Aug. 15, 2022. Indian officials said that date has not been delayed at least one year.

ISRO was also hoping to launch the Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander last year. The vehicle is a replacement for the Chandrayaan-2 lander, which crashed during its landing attempt on Sept. 6, 2019. The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter continues to function as designed.

Chandrayaan-2 in Earth orbit with lander on top and orbiter on the bottom. (Credit: ISRO)

ISRO had been planning to launch its Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) for the first time last year. However, the pandemic pushed the flight test into 2021. SSLV will be capable of launching 500 kg (1,102 lb.) to low Earth orbit or 300 kg (661 lb.) to sun-synchronous orbit.

Launch of India’s first mission to study the sun, Aditya L1, was also delayed. India’s first solar mission is now scheduled to liftoff in December 2021 or January 2022.

Commercialization Reforms Advance

India made major strides in 2020 to jump start the commercialization of its government-run space industry. The government initiated a number of important reforms while start-up companies worked to develop commercial launch vehicles and satellites.

The government established a new agency named the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Center (IN-SPACe) to issue permits and regulations for private space companies.

“IN-SPACe will act as a national nodal agency to hand-hold and promote private endeavours in space sector and for this ISRO will share its technical expertise as well as facilities,” ISRO said in a press release. “IN-SPACe will have its own independent Directorates for Technical, Legal, Safety & Security, Monitoring as well as Activities Promotion for assessing the private industry requirements and further coordinating the activities.”

The main focus of another agency, NewSpace India Ltd. (NSIL), is to “off-load operational activities of ISRO in the areas of launch vehicle and satellite production, launch services as well as space based services. NSIL will execute these activities through Industry Consortiums,” ISRO said.

Privatizing these activities will allow ISRO to focus more time and money on R&D activities, including the development of advanced technology and space missions.

For the first time, ISRO is providing access to its facilities and expertise to private companies. In December, the government signed a non-disclosure agreement with Agnikul Cosmos Private Ltd., a startup developing a small satellite launch vehicle.

ISRO is also working to incorporate private companies in R&D activities and advanced planetary missions.

These actions are similar to those used in the American space program. NASA allows access to its facilities and works with private industry on a variety of projects through Space Act Agreements.

The government scrapped an 18 percent goods and services tax (GST) tax on Indian companies launching their satellites on ISRO’s rockets. The tax, which was not levied on foreign firms, drove some Indian companies to use foreign launch vehicles.

Looking ahead to a higher launch cadence, the government identified over 961 hectares (2,375 acres) of land in the Thoothukudi district for India’s second spaceport. The new facility would have one new launch pad in order to supplement the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, which hosts all of India’s orbital launches.