A wrong orbit deprived Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) of complete success in its maiden launch of its Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) Programme on Sunday. It is a jolt for India’s space science community—and possibly to the burgeoning multi-billion-dollar small satellite commercial launch market segment for India.
The SSLV-D1, carrying ISRO’s own EOS-02 earth observation satellite and a students’ satellite AzaadiSAT, seemed all normal at launch time from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota. All three stages performed normally. Both the satellites were injected into space. But it was found that the launch vehicle placed the satellites into an elliptical orbit instead of a circular orbit. The satellites are no longer usable. ISRO said failure of a “logic to identify a sensor failure and go for a salvage action caused the deviation”. The space body said it will come with the next version, SSLV-D2, in the near future. The SSLV programme was planned to ride on India’s successful record of launching low-earth satellites with remote-sensing capabilities over the decades. The AzaadiSAT satellite was developed by select girl students from rural areas across India to enhance reception for the HAM amateur radio operators.
There are foreign companies already showing interest in sending their small satellites on ISRO’s SSLVs. The advantage of SSLVs is that each rocket can be integrated within as short a span of time as 72 hours, against more than a month taken for other launch vehicles. There are plans to keep 15–20 SSLVs ready to launch every year—each with multiple satellites—to accommodate the expected growing demand.
This failure could displace some of the trust placed by potential customers. That threatens ISRO’s opportunities to make the most of its advantages. The four-year delay in launching its maiden SSLV flight could be blamed on the pandemic. But the orbit deviation that affected the success of its maiden flight only means ISRO Chairman S Somanath needs to charge up his team and take the programme to its desired objective while holding the growing trust of potential customers in ISRO’s SSLV programme.