Satellite carrier SpaceX, which successfully test launched and landed its reusable Falcon 9 rocket in December has caused much concern to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which, faced with competition, is now planning to fast-track its reusable rocket programme. The SpaceX test’s success has increased competition in the affordable launch services market.
SpaceX is the brain-child of tech-business magnate Elon Musk. The company is in the business of satellite and space station support launches. India stakes claim to less than 10% of the satellite launch services market. However, SpaceX is posing a serious challenge to ISRO and other carriers who provide commercial satellite launch services with their cheaper price offerings and advanced technological capabilities.
“Currently, construction costs of ISRO’s PSLV launch vehicle is about Rs 100 crore. With its capacity of carrying payloads of up to 3,250 kg to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), the cost per kg of payload is around Rs 3.3 lakh. But after factoring in other expenses like employee salaries, sub-contractors, insurance and more, the final cost that ISRO charges its customers is over Rs 21 lakh per kg. If you multiply the per kg cost to its capacity, the price amounts to more than the actual cost of the rocket itself. Furthermore, our rockets cannot be reused and therefore construction costs are effectively high. SpaceX, with its own launch vehicle, small team and advanced reusable rockets, charges a sum of Rs 3.20 lakh per kg for payload. How can we possibly compete at such mismatching prices?” a senior official in the marketing division of Antrix Corporation, the commercial arm of ISRO, told The Sunday Guardian.
Officials in ISRO claim that SpaceX is a major competitor to the Indian commercial space programme and that there is a need to fast-track ISRO’s reusable rocket programme, which is currently in research stage.
“The satellite launch market is very crowded. It is very competitive as well. The price point set by SpaceX invariably makes them the cheapest service among all, at present. They have made an effective launch vehicle. They have a cost-effective design, vertical integration and high launch volume. That gives them the advantage. India has made use of low-cost manufacturing along with a good success record in launches, but that alone is not enough to maintain a place in this market,” A.N. Nair, ISRO scientist and member of the advisory board of Antrix Corporation told this newspaper.
“SpaceX is a long-term competitor. All space agencies across the world are looking to reinvent their carrier programmes. Arianespace, which leads its competitors by miles, has accelerated its carrier programme. We must as well. SpaceX’s launch costs have gone down tremendously due to their reusable rockets and multiple launches a year,” he added.
Agencies such as the European Space Agency (ESA) and the French-based firm Arianespace — which commands over 50% market share — announced plans for a reusable rocket last year. SpaceX has, over the past few years, gained ground and is posing a serious challenge to even the industry leaders. SpaceX’s flagship Falcon 9 rocket is currently the lowest-costing satellite launch vehicle.
“Unless the other rocket makers improve their technology rapidly, they will lose significant market share to the Falcon 9,” Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO and chief designer, said at a public gathering in the United States last month.