ISRO Update: GSLV Investigation, Chandrayaan-2 Downscope, Antrix Reform

A few updates on ISRO concerning rocket development and reforms of the space agency’s commercial arm, Antrix Corp., in the wake of two GSLV failures and a spectrum allocation scandal. It seems that the murky Indian space world will become just a bit clearer. And that delays in rocket development will force a down scoping and delay of the agency’s next lunar mission.

GSLV Failure Review

Officials say they have found no fundamental flaws in the GSLV rocket despite consecutive failures last year:

“We had the opportunity to look at all aspects of [the] GSLV, at not only the missions that failed but also the successful missions,” says G. Madhavan Nair, the chairman of the failure analysis committee and a former chief of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). “We could not find any design deficiency with respect to the GSLV.”

The group traced the loss of GSLV-F06 to a failure of the composite shroud on the vehicle’s Russian cryogenic engine. “The problem with GSLV is of a minor nature and it does not call for major changes,” Nair says. Discussions have begun with Russia regarding the shroud issue.

ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan says the space agency has now decided to focus on developing indigenous cryogenic engines to power the Mk. 2 GSLVs.

The shroud problem occurred during the GSLV launch on Christmas Day. An earlier launch failed last April after the first indigenous cryogenic engine did not fire properly. ISRO officials are aiming for a second test of the cryogenic stage next year.

GLSV Mark III

Meanwhile, development of the uprated GLSV Mark III rocket is falling behind schedule, which will have an impact on India’s Chandrayaan-2 lunar mission:

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on Tuesday said it will start flight testing of the GSLV Mk III for launching four-tonne class of satellites in the next two years.

Addressing the National Technology Summit here, ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan said the space agency would be completing work on the Astrosat and the Aditya projects by 2012 and 2013 respectively.

“In the next two years, we are looking to begin the flight-testing of the GSLV Mk III engine, which will be the third-largest in the world,” he said.

As a result of the delay, ISRO officials are looking to scale down Chandrayaan II, an ambitious joint project with the Russians to send an orbiter and a surface rover to the moon:

“Chandrayaan-2 has been designed to go on GSLV MK-III,” a top source told Deccan Chronicle. “But the development process has run up to a brick wall following back-to-back launch failures. The moon mission is already delayed. A decision to launch it with base model of GSLV has been taken.”

Antrix-Devas Deal

The reverberations from the controversial spectrum deal between Antrix and Devas Multimedia continue to be felt. The deal, involving the development of a KU-band satellite, was attacked by critics as a giveaway to politically connected company and later canceled by the government.

On the one hand, officials say that it hasn’t had much effect on Antrix’s ability to conduct business and to attract partners:

The controversial Antrix-Devas deal has not impacted the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) as the space agency’s commercial arm is still receiving enquiries from various countries for launching satellites and building satellites.

Speaking to reporters at the launch of a book All About Rockets on Wednesday, ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan said there were no ‘pullbacks’ by any country after the exposé of the Antrix-Devas muddle and that enquiries were pouring in from several countries for using the Indian launch facilities and also building satellites.

He said that ISRO has a backlog of 12 foreign satellites to be launched over the next few years which include the 800 kg German satellite environment monitoring satellite and some small and micro satellites in the 40 kg-100 kg category for Indonesia, Germany and Canada. He said that discussions were on with several countries for launching and building satellites.

However, Radhakrishnan said there will be changes in the management structure of the company.

He also said that separate names for chairman and managing director of Antrix Corporation had been recommended and the same had been forwarded to prime minister Manmohan Singh who will make the announcement in a couple of weeks.

After the appointment of the new chairman and managing director, the Antrix board would also be reconstituted, he said.

Antrix is also taking an unprecedented step of actually publishing its satellite policy:

As part of a larger exercise to improve transparency, Antrix Corp. Ltd, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation, or Isro, will post the country’s satellite policy on its website.

The satellite policy is a government-approved document that elaborates the principles under which transponders on various Indian satellites are leased to private and state broadcasters.

“The satellite policy will be put up on the (Antrix) website and will be part of the several initiatives to spell out greater transparency in the way Antrix and Isro function,” said K. Radhakrishnan, chairman, Isro, on the sidelines of the National Technology Summit.

Experts say spelling out the policy will offer greater clarity on future leases of satellite transponders by Isro.

“There was a time when spectrum was just given away,” said P.S. Goel, a former director at Isro. “Clearly, it is a far more valuable asset and there has to be more scrutiny and transparency in the manner it is auctioned or given now that private players are likely to play an ever increasing role.”

This is astounding. U.S. government policies on such matters are usually spelled out in great detail and made available online so that everyone is aware of the rules and disputes can be adjudicated properly. NASA, in particular, is very open about how it operates. That ISRO and Antrix are just getting around to publishing these regulations now reveals much about India’s murky government.

The reform efforts are not enough to quiet the critics of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who say the deal and various scandals are examples of deep corruption within the government. In a recent resolution, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said:

“Manmohan Singh presides over the most corrupt government since independence. It lacks transparency, there is collusion at high level, no checks and balances and there is virtual collapse of system where scam after scam and scandal after scandal has become the order of the day…

“When confronted with gross irregularity his reply was the same as usual, he did not know about it or was not told about it. It seems odd and curious that alibi of lack of knowledge has become the constant theme whenever he is confronted with any irregularity.

“Manmohan Singh should we presume that you don?t do any monitoring or, you are in the habit of looking the other way, whenever any wrong or corruption takes place.”