Why ISRO must launch Low Earth Orbit satellites

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Published: June 17, 2016 6:22:41 AM

We need a photographic surveillance system to complement the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System

A dual role of providing broadband connectivity as well as high-resolution photographic images can only be played by an indigenous technology. ISRO must consider launching Low Earth Orbit satellites.A dual role of providing broadband connectivity as well
as high-resolution photographic images can only be played
by an indigenous technology. ISRO must consider launching Low Earth Orbit satellites.

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s recent success in deploying the seventh and last unit of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)—it’s also called NavIC—has enabled the country to join a select group of nations with their own satellite navigation systems. When fully commissioned this month, ISRO will be offering two types of services—Standard Positioning Service (SPS) which would be available for all users who use mobile phones, navigation devices, e-commerce services, etc; and Restricted Service (RS) which will be used only for military purposes.

With almost universal deployment of US-based GPS, the Indian system (SPS) may not be a viable commercial venture for quite some time. However, RS can fill a critical gap in our defence capability. Since the system’s footprint extends to 1,500-km beyond Indian borders, it will provide our defence forces with information about potential enemy’s war-making capability.

In times of war, the system can be used for targeting their assets by our missiles and long-range guns. For instance, in the Kargil War of 1999, the army could not get correct GPS data from US-based systems. The intruders could be detected only by army patrols after four months. The war resulted in a large number of casualties which could have been avoided if we had a surveillance system of our own.

Last year, the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1965 war. Half a dozen books were published with the encouragement of the ministry of defence. Both India and Pakistan claim victory in this war, which is described as a stalemate by Indian official history of the war, as well as in contemporary narratives by neutral observers. Both in Lahore and Sialkot sectors our advance came to a halt and we could not score a convincing victory because of lack of intelligence. In Lahore sector, our forces did not have full information about the Ichhogil Canal, which the enemy had prepared as a formidable anti-tank barrier. In Sialkot sector, our forces didn’t have up-to-date maps of the area in which they were asked to advance. They didn’t know the enemy had raised another armoured division—the 6th—in addition to the 1st, which made the task of capturing the main objective of Chawinda too difficult, resulting in a large number of casualties. If we had a satellite-based photographic surveillance system, the course of these battles could have been different.

Since IRNSS satellites are placed in geostationary and geosynchronous orbit—36,000-km above sea level—they may not provide good photographic intelligence about enemy forces and assets in a dynamic war situation. Navigation systems are not equipped with cameras and sensors and, therefore, are not capable of providing high quality photographic intelligence in real-time.

Therefore, ISRO must accept the challenge of launching Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, such as Iridium, which is about a two-decade-old technology. Although it was not a commercial success, the system, with 66 satellites and 11 spares, covers the entire globe and is synchronised in a LEO of 781-km. It is still operational and mainly used by the Department of Defence (US). At this distance, excellent photographic images can be taken, which is very difficult to obtain by other means.

The US, which used high altitude aircraft like the Lockheed U-2 in the 1960s and 1970s, is now using LEO satellites to gather intelligence. Moreover, sending reconnaissance aircraft over hostile territory even during peacetime is dangerous—as was demonstrated by the shooting down of the U-2 over Soviet Union airspace in May 1960.

The Iridium Next-Generation is currently being developed in the US for providing broadband connectivity to remote areas. It will be equipped with cameras and sensors. The launch is planned for 2017.

One of the most ambitious satellite systems—called Teledesic—was planned to provide fibre-like bandwidth, but it had to be given up due to the high capital cost of $9 billion and falling market share due to the spread of GSM-based mobile phones in various countries. The project was designed to provide an uplink speed of 100Mbps and downlink speed of 720Mbps. It was initially planned to have 840 satellites in orbit at an altitude of 740-km. Due to the commercial failure of both Iridium and Globalstar LEO systems, the Teledesic project was suspended in 2002. Now, 14 years later, the demand has increased for smaller satellites and the launch capabilities have vastly improved, with lower costs.

It is learnt that Google is planning to have a large constellation of up to 1,600 small satellites to provide a global broadband service similar to the failed Teledesic. Google also has another project called Loon, which is based on high altitude balloons. Unlike LEOs, they do not provide countrywide coverage. These balloons, which form a network at the edge of space, have been offered to the government to provide internet connectivity in remote areas. However, balloon-based technologies are not as proven as LEO. Moreover, we cannot rely on foreign multinationals if we want the satellites to serve as a surveillance platform for our defence forces.

Clearly, a dual role—of providing broadband connectivity as well as high-resolution photographic images—can only be played by an indigenous technology developed by ISRO. LEO satellites provide low latency, which is essential for broadband connectivity. In the remote areas of the country, optical fibre to the last mile will prove to be too costly and suboptimal. Countries with a large landmass like Australia already employ Satcom technology to connect remote areas. India too should.

The author is a former member, Trai and Telecom Commission

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