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India, China in race to reduce rocket launch prices

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is fully prepared for the global race to cut the cost of launching rockets, the agency said on Tuesday after China announced plans to bring down prices to $5,000 a kilogram.

Rocket launch prices usually aren’t made public and a Chinese official’s rare comments on plans to reduce costs were made at an aerospace forum in Beijing this month.

Reacting to China’s plans to drastically reduce launch costs, an ISRO official said not only is the Indian agency “competitive”, but it is working to reduce the cost of access to space through new technology. The effort is to bring down space launch costs to “one-tenth” of what they are now, the official said.

Yang Baohua from the China Aerospace Science and Technological Corporation (CASC), a state-owned entity that develops and manufactures spacecraft and launch vehicles, said the company is “ready to provide cheaper and faster low-earth orbit rocket launches”.

The People’s Daily, the Communist Party‘s mouthpiece, quoted Yang as saying: “The price could be as low as $5,000 per kilogram and the pre-launch preparation will only need a week.”

Will ISRO, known for its cost-effective model, be able to compete?

“We are quite competitive,” ISRO spokesperson Deviprasad Karnik said when Hindustan Times reached out for a comment on China’s plans.

“As of now, India is quite competitive with regard to the prevailing global launch cost. So far, India has launched 209 satellites of nano, micro, mini, and standard size for 28 countries. There is a global move to reduce the cost of access to space to the tune of one-tenth of the prevailing one. India is also working towards that,” Karnik said.

The cost of launching various rockets used by the United Launch Alliance - a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that provides services to the US government - ranges between $14,000 a kilogram to $20,000 a kilogram. However, private launch service provider SpaceX plans to bring down costs to about $2,500 a kilogram with its partially reusable rockets.

Karnik outlined some of the steps being taken by ISRO to bring down costs.

”India is developing reusable launch vehicles. We have successfully tested a mission - RLV-TD and Scranjet -TD - in that direction, with TD standing for technology demonstrator. Efforts are on for the full-fledged development of such systems,” he said.

He declined to share details of how much India charges but the fact that India has done launches for 28 countries, including Germany, Canada, The Netherlands and Israel, points toward a sharply competitive model put in place by ISRO.

Karnik said the Chinese effort to reduce costs in the sector was part of a global trend. “As I have already mentioned, the global move is to reduce the cost of access to space to the tune of one-tenth of the prevailing (prices),” he said.

With six manned space missions, China’s space programme is more advanced. But that hasn’t stopped Beijing from closely tracking the commercial aspect of India’s space programme and attempting to make its own cheaper.

“India’s successful launch of a record-breaking 104 satellites into orbit could serve as a wake-up call for China’s commercial space industry and there are a number of lessons for the country to learn,” the nationalistic Global Times tabloid wrote after ISRO broke the Russian record for launching the highest number of satellites at one go in February.

“Competition with India for commercial space launches may be inevitable, and the most urgent action needed for China to expand its market share is to reduce the cost of putting satellites into orbit,” it said.

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