Reasons for launch failure
ISRO’s satellite IRNSS-1H’s launch on August 31, 2017 was declared unsuccessful.
A S Kiran Kumar, Chairman, ISRO is reported to have said that the cause can be attributed to a failure of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle’s (PSLV’s) protective heat shield in separating and dropping off at the scheduled juncture.
A heat shield is part of the PSLV whose function is to protect against the extreme friction generated heat with the Earth’s atmosphere during its lift-off. It is only after the heat shield separates that the satellite is released into its orbit. In the case of IRNSS-1H, the heat shield did not separate before the satellite entered into orbit, which scientists attributed as a failure of the PSLV. Thus the satellite manufactured by India’s private sector remains untested.
The mission was named the PSLV-C39 Mission, and its failure follows ISRO’s record of 39 consecutive successful launches by the organization in the recent past. According to NDTV, the IRNSS-1H is the first of ISRO’s satellites that was manufactured by the private sector.
The IRNSS-1H’s manufacturers comprise a consortium of companies led by Alpha Design Technologies, a Bengaluru-based company that is active in the supply of defence equipment. Manufacturing operations were overseen by a team of about 70 scientists headed by Colonel H.S. Shankar. The satellite was manufactured over a period of 8 months. The company is also tasked with manufacturing a second satellite, work on which is expected to be finished by April 2018 (P. Bagla, 2017).
The space establishment in India partnered with private manufacturers for the first time to manufacture a high cost, heavy duty satellite. Coming at a time when a high degree of satellite fabrication is occurring, ISRO has entered into a deal that can eventually lead to four or five satellites manufactured, assembled, tested, integrated, and qualified in facilities run by the private manufacturers.
The Director of the ISRO Satellite Centre in Bengaluru – M. Annadurai – is reported to have told the press that there is a deficit in the capabilities of ISRO as regards certain briefs that it is supposed to address. This deficit in specific terms, Annadurai said, was in the 16 to 17 satellites that ISRO manufactures on average annually, which ISRO wants to expand with the help of the private sector (PTI, 2017).
The mission of ISRO’s satellite IRNSS-1H was to provide back up to and eventually functionally replace India’s first navigational satellite – the IRNSS-1A – which was launched 4 years ago on July 1st, 2013. Seven IRNSS satellites have been launched by ISRO between 2013 and 2016 as part of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System, which is also called Navigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC).
The NavIC is an Indian version of the American Global Positioning System (GPS), although on a regional level. The NavIC gives accurate details of location of objects as well as people and also data on their position-based activities regardless of whether they are on land, sea or air (The Hindu, 2017).
IRNSS is an acronym for Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System. The NavIC enables India as one of only five nations with satellite systems that enable global positioning. The other global entities that have global positioning capabilities are the US, the European Union, China, Russia and Japan. The GPS was originally developed by the US, and Russia has its own version called GLONASS.
With the influx of the private sector in developing satellites that have the critical function of providing navigational systems, a major worry will be private involvement in matters of national security.
If the design aspects of the satellites including manufacturing, assembling, testing, integrating, and qualifying the satellites is carried out by the private sector, they have access to the dynamics and mechanics of the navigational satellite, which otherwise should be classified information. This can in the worst case place information on India’s geo-strategic interests up in the market for bidders to purchase.
SpaceX, a private sector space manufacturing corporation in the US, launched a classified spy satellite for the US Government in May 2017. Known only as NROL-76, the spy satellite was launched from Cape Canaverel in SpaceX’s signature Falcon 9 rocket.
This was the first launch of its kind for SpaceX and the company has been withholding all information on the classified launch, with not even a webcast on the event by SpaceX. SpaceX has also landed contracts with the US Government to send GPS satellites into orbit.
The definitive factor for SpaceX in landing the contracts was its competitive price, being lower than other competitors. In this SpaceX supplies the launch facilities for the satellite, otherwise manufactured by Lockheed Martin under a contract with the US Government (SpaceFlight101, 2017).
Although SpaceX maintains a high level of secrecy with these contracts, such collaborations between public and private can create a double-edged sword of secrecy.
In ISRO’s history, several of ISRO’s satellites have had several unsuccessful launches. An early failure was the launch of ISRO’s Satellite Launch Vehicle -3 in 1979. Another prominent failure early on was the failed launch of the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle in 1987. The PSLV, which is presently the dependable launch vehicle, had a failed launch in its first attempt in 1993 (P. Bagla, 2017). Although there have been many failed launches by ISRO, the failed launch of IRNSS-1H was preceded by 39 consecutive successful launches by ISRO.
The Mission Control Centre at ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre was shocked into a desolate silence as it became evident that the PSLV C-39 Mission had resulted in a launch failure. It was only at the final fourth stage of the PSLV launch that it was certain that the heat shield had failed to separate and ISRO’s chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar declared the mission as a failure shortly after (PTI, 2017).
Out of the 104 of ISRO’s satellites sent into space on Feb 2017, 101 were made in other nations. The influx of the private sector is a sign of a developing space market in India. However, the focus must remain on quality rather than offering mainly budget-friendly solutions. In a developing field for India, investments must focus on quality investments more than quantity.