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LVM3 launch
An Indian LVM3 rocket, also known as GSLV Mark III, lifts off October 23 carrying three dozen OneWeb satellites. The launch was the first commercial mission for that rocket, India’s largest. (credit: ISRO)

ISRO’s LVM3-M2 mission: an expansion of India’s commercial activities

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On October 23, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched 36 satellites on a mission called LVM3-M2 for a UK-based company, OneWeb. This company, in which the UK government is a minority shareholder, is partnering with India’s Bharti Group to provide broadband connectivity for government and commercial customers from space.

ISRO was not originally considered for providing launch services to OneWeb. But the Ukraine war changed the entire dynamics of the launch industry.

The LVM3 (Launch Vehicle Mark 3)-M2 mission was the first commercial mission for ISRO with the LVM3, also known as the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV Mk III). The mission successfully delivered a 36 satellites payload to low Earth orbit (LEO). This has been the heaviest payload—5,796 kilograms, with each satellite weighing around 150 kilograms—ever delivered by ISRO. This mission was the first for NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), the commercial arm of ISRO. NSIL was established during 2019 and is expected to handle a range of activities including commercial satellite launches, leasing of transponders, providing consultancy services, satellite manufacturing, among others. Although this mission lifted approximately six tons of payload, the LVM3 has the capacity of carrying up to eight tons. The GSLV Mk III was developed by ISRO to launch payloads of communication or meteorological satellites weighing up to four into geostationary orbit. When this vehicle is used for putting satellites into LEO, it is referred as LVM3. This vehicle had already done four successful flights including India’s second mission to Moon during 2019.

For India, performance of this vehicle is crucial, as it is currently being human-rated and is expected to carry Indian astronauts to space for the Gaganyaan mission. LVM3 is a three-stage vehicle with two solid motor strap-ons, a liquid propellant core stage, and a cryogenic upper stage. The cryogenic stage for the vehicle has been designed and developed by ISRO with much effort for many years. All 36 satellites have were put in a circular low-earth orbit of about 601 kilometers with a 87.4 degree inclination. According to ISRO, the separation of satellites involved a unique maneuver of the cryogenic stage to reorient itself, covering nine phases spanning 75 minutes.

OneWeb is working towards providing high-speed (LEO) connectivity with low latency for primary, backup, and hybrid capabilities. They are working towards establishing a 648-satellite constellation. They expect to complete the process of putting all required satellites into the space by early 2023, and fully operationalize their global broadband internet services by the end of 2023. Before this launch, OneWeb has launched 428 satellites in space in different batches and for all these launches the launch vehicle has been the Russian Soyuz.

ISRO was not originally considered for providing launch services to OneWeb. But the Ukraine war changed the entire dynamics of the launch industry. Russia is now under sanctions and the UK suspended its launch services contract for Soyuz missions. OneWeb soon selected SpaceX and ISRO to complete their remaining launches. The next three launches with 48 satellites per mission will be performed by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, and the last launch with 36 satellites is expected to be conducted by ISRO around February 2023.

In July 2022, OneWeb signed a merger agreement with Eutelsat Communications with the aim to create a single, powerful global player in connectivity. Eutelsat would be adding its 36-strong fleet of GEO satellites to OneWeb’s LEO constellation. The merger is projected to be completed by first half of 2023.

It would be of interest to see how India succeeds to fill the void created by Russia being removed from the launch market by sanctions. It is also important for India to develop its own market beyond filling this void.

With the success of LVM3 mission, ISRO’s count for launching satellites for foreign agencies has reached 381. During that time, 36 countries are known to have commercially engaged ISRO for launches of their satellites. ISRO has been in in launching business for more than two decades; the first satellite for a foreign country, Germany, took place in 1999. However, the majority of these satellites were very small satellites. Typically, ISRO used to fly these payloads when there was excess capacity during their PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) missions. Essentially, most of the commercial launches undertaken by ISRO so far have been piggyback missions, except for a very few PSLV missions that were undertaken exclusively for commercial purposes.

Realizing that there is a good market for commercial launches of small satellites (in the range 10 to 500 kilograms) into LEO, several years ago India decided to develop a separate vehicle for launching such satellites called the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). This vehicle has been developed for a payload carrying capacity of 500 kilograms to LEO and 300 kilograms to Sun-synchronous orbits, with the ability to support multiple orbital drop-offs. However, the inaugural flight of this vehicle on August 7 failed to reach orbit. The SSLV is a three-stage vehicle powered by solid fuel and the three performed their function as planned. However, a malfunctioning sensor resulted in placing the satellites in an elliptical orbit, rather than a circular orbit. ISRO is now planning the second SSLV mission for this November. Another planned mission during 2023 has been already booked by Spaceflight, an American company, for launching four BlackSky imaging satellites.

Interestingly, Indian agencies were very quick to grab the opportunity when there was a realization that OneWeb required launching assistance once it could no longer use Russian rockets. NSIL responded quicky and now, within six months after signing the contract, the satellites are already in space. All this indicates that India is keen to establish itself as a major player to offer launching services in LEO with their SSLV and LVM3 satellite launching systems. According to some predictions, there could be a possible market for around 10,000 satellites requiring launches in the coming years. However, the competition is going to be very interesting. SpaceX has already established itself as a major player. Companies like Relativity Space, the first company to 3D-print nearly entire rockets, have already signed multi-launch agreements with companies like OneWeb. There are some other companies that are offering LEO launching services. Hence, it would be of interest to see how India succeeds to fill the void created by Russia being removed from the launch market by sanctions. It is also important for India to develop its own market beyond filling this void.

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