The year 2017 has been one of tremendous achievements for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). In February, there was the successful launch of PSLV C37 with its record payload of 104 satellites. And more recently, ISRO's heaviest rocket so far, the GSLV Mark III made its operational debut successfully. But, besides scaling the peaks of scientific achievement, the agency is now also looking to make some money from its operations.
Over the past couple of years, ISRO has done quite well, securing contracts from other countries and organisations to launch their satellites. In fact, 101 out of the 104 satellites comprising the PSLV C37 payload were meant for commercial purposes.
According to a Livemint report, ISRO's profit was ₹209.13 crores in 2015-16, slightly more than ₹205.10 crores in the previous year. The number of commercial satellites launched by ISRO has gone up as well. The agency is also trying to increase the number of launches it conducts every year. For this purpose, the agency is building a new vehicle assembly.
At a conference in February, ISRO Chairman AS Kiran Kumar said that they had conducted nine successful missions in 2016 and the aim was to go up to 18-24 launches per year.
"Right now we have ₹400 crores of orders in the bag. And we are in talks with a lot of companies for orders worth ₹500 to ₹600 crores," S Rakesh, Director of Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO, said at a press conference held after the PSLV C37 launch.
While ISRO launches are cheap as compared to other space agencies, there are other factors that have to be considered as well. For instance, a PSLV launch costs around $15 million while a SpaceX launch costs $60 million. But the latter is capable of launching heavier satellites to higher orbits.
There are very few agencies right now that launch nano-satellites. PSLV launches can provide a steady platform for such launches and earn money but the margins are low as compared to bigger satellite launches.
"The dynamics of launch costs are a complex area," Carolyn Belle, satellite and launch industry analyst at Northern Sky Research (NSR) told Livemint "The PSLV is far less capable than the Ariane 5, for example, [as it is] being used to deliver satellites with a lower total mass to LEO [Lower Earth Orbit] rather than GEO [Geostationary Earth Orbit], [and] thus should be [at] a lower cost. Costs must always be made by approximate price per kg to the same orbit to eliminate these variables."
However, one of the main challenges ISRO faces is the payload capacity of its launch vehicles. Its heaviest rocket, the GSLV Mark III, has 4,000 kg of load capacity to Geostationary Orbit, and that is still very low compared to the rockets being used by the world's other space agencies.
The government is mindful of ISRO's requirements. This year, the space budget has been increased to $1.4 billion, a jump of 23 percent over the previous year. For the first time, ISRO is tapping private agencies as well. It has recently partnered with multiple companies to make a heavy duty satellite.
ISRO is also lending its testing facilities and expertise to budding Indian space startups. An Indian company, TeamIndus, which is working on a lunar vehicle that will be ready by 2018 as part of an international contest, will also rely on ISRO's PSLV rocket for its mission.
While ISRO is now a serious contender in the international satellite launch market, being a government agency comes with its in own set of priorities and challenges. Still, the future for India's space agency is looking bright.