The cheapest trip to Mars leaves from Sriharikota, India’s Cape Canaveral

Spacefaring rivals can’t beat the prices charged by India, which sent its own probe to the Red Planet for less money than Hollywood spent making a movie

India’s PSLV ticks all the right boxes for commercial satellite makers. Photo: PTI
India’s PSLV ticks all the right boxes for commercial satellite makers. Photo: PTI

The cheapest flight to Mars may leave from a tiny barrier island in southeastern India.

Sriharikota, the nation’s Cape Canaveral, is the launchpad for an ambitious space programme that has shot more than 120 satellites into orbit—including for the US, Israel and Germany. Spacefaring rivals can’t beat the prices charged by India, which sent its own probe to the Red Planet for less money than Hollywood spent making a movie about an astronaut stranded there.

While China strives to put people farther into space, this South Asian country instead eyes a bigger slice of the $5.4 billion satellite-launching industry. India added an Alphabet Inc. subsidiary as a customer this year, heightening its profile just as the global launch market surges because of the demand for constant internet connectivity and monitoring of the earth by commercial, scientific and military entities.

“Launch capacity globally is limited,” A.S. Kiran Kumar, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, said at its Bengaluru headquarters. “Why are people coming to us? Because they are looking for the most cost-effective, short turnaround-time launches.”

India competes for commercial launches with space agencies in Europe and Japan, and with private players such as Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin LLC. The nation has launched 37 satellites this year, almost double last year’s total, with more planned, according to Kumar’s organization.

Most trips departing from India use the workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV, which can take a microsatellite into space for about $30 million, according to UK-based researcher Seradata Ltd. The tab is split if multiple satellites are hauled.

That’s about half the price charged by SpaceX for rides on its Falcon 9 rockets, though the Hawthorne, California-based company says its payloads are bigger. It’s also cheaper than the prices charged by the US for its Minotaur rocket and Arianespace SA for its Vega, according to Seradata.India’s PSLV ticks all the right boxes for commercial satellite makers, said David Todd, head of space content at Seradata. Its last failure was in the 1990s.

“It has reached the ‘Nirvana’ stage in a modern launch vehicle’s experience,” Todd said. “It has settled into having a long series of perfect flights with no failures.”

The agreement with Google-owned Terra Bella, a satellite imagery company, took seven years to negotiate, said Susmita Mohanty, co-founder and chief executive officer of Bengaluru-based Earth2Orbit, which brokered the deal.

That’s because the US in 2005 started discouraging domestic companies from hiring the Indian Space Research Organisation and its affiliate, Antrix Corp., for commercial launches after the Indian government wouldn’t sign a pact setting quotas and minimum prices.

As India held out, the market came around. The burgeoning need among phone companies, electronics makers and broadcasters for rockets prompted the US government to issue waivers on an individual basis.

Global satellite industry revenue -- including services, manufacturing and launching -- almost doubled to $208 billion in the decade through 2015, according to the Washington-based Satellite Industry Association.

Terra Bella uses images taken from space to analyze port traffic, help disaster-response teams, and track changes in mining pits, according to its website. India’s space agency launched its 110-kilogram (243-pound) SkySat microsatellite in June -- one of 20 atop a single rocket. Isro plans to launch more than 80 at once—the most ever—early next year.

Terra Bella wouldn’t comment except to refer to a blog post showing one of its first images: Chicago’s Soldier Field.“Our launch agreement was pioneering,” said Mohanty, whose father was a space scientist in India during the 1970s. “We have opened the door and left it ajar for other satellite makers to access India’s frequent and affordable launches.”

The nation’s most famous liftoff occurred in 2013, when a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle carried the Mars Orbiter Spacecraft from Sriharikota. The craft, called Mangalyaan in Sanskrit, made India the fourth nation to reach the fourth planet from the sun.

Mangalyaan’s objectives include looking for methane and carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere to determine whether life ever existed on our neighbouring planet.

It cost about $74 million, or about 11% of the price tag for NASA’s Maven probe. By comparison, 20th Century Fox spent an estimated $108 million making “The Martian,” according to Box Office Mojo.

Thrift has been the hallmark of India’s space program since the early 1960s, when rocket sections were transported by bicycle and assembled by hand inside St. Mary Magdalene Church in Thumba, a fishing village near the tip of the Indian peninsula.

The Soviet Union was an early supporter, launching India’s first homemade satellite in 1975 and putting the first Indian in space in 1984. Rakesh Sharma spent almost eight days aboard the orbiting Salyut 7 station conducting experiments.

Cost efficiency is imperative in a country where about 21% of its population lived on less than $1.90 a day in 2011, according to the World Bank. That poverty makes relevancy even more significant, Kumar said.

“In most other places, generally, the space program started as a strategic or a military program,” said Kumar, who joined the space organization in 1975 and took over last year after working on the Mars orbiter. “In our program, right from the beginning, what has been looked at is how this space technology can be used for societal benefits.”

The Mars mission kick-started efforts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to use the space program to lift the standard of living. India operates about 35 satellites for broadcasting, navigation, scientific research and weather monitoring, and Kumar said the nation needs to double that.

One key area is disaster management since 60% of the land mass is prone to earthquakes and about 70 percent of its cultivable area is susceptible to drought. The nation also suffers devastating tropical cyclones.

India plans to launch a satellite to look for potential risks and then provide information for mitigation, response and recovery, Modi said. The machine will scan all of South Asia.

“India is ready to make its space capabilities available to any country for purposes of disaster risk management,” Modi told a 3 November conference in New Delhi.

The government also is putting a mining surveillance system in space, hoping to curb illegal digging through remote sensing detection technology. Currently, the nation depends on eyewitness accounts.

But the Indian Space Research Organisation’s $1.09 billion budget is also about boosting the space industry. India currently is building its own competitor to the US-run Global Positioning System.The Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System consists of seven satellites and provides coverage for users in India and within 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) of its borders. Its applications include positioning information for land, sea and air; mapping data; and disaster management, according to the space organization’s website.

Modi touts the system as an example of his “Make in India” effort, and his minister for space programs told parliament in July he wants to get private, domestic businesses involved in manufacturing rocket engines, fuel tanks and spacecraft.All this is to help prepare for a potential 2020 mission, in cooperation with France, to put another satellite into orbit around Mars before possibly landing there, according to the NDTV channel.

“What was once seen as only within reach of the West has now opened up to nations from around the world,” Luigi Peluso, a managing director at AlixPartners who’s part of the consultant’s aerospace practice, said in an e-mail. “India has keen ability to control costs and very well-established scientific and technical resources available.” Bloomberg

More From Livemint