PARIS— Past and future customers of India’s PSLV rocket said they doubt whether India will ever sign the kind of price-commitment agreement with the U.S. government that has been a subject of dispute for a decade.
Without substantial modifications that would reduce the agreement to no more than a fig leaf, Indian authorities will never agree to lose face by signing it because of its implied loss of sovereignty, they said.
Given the worldwide growth in the number of small, lightweight satellites intended to operate in low Earth orbit – the kind the PSLV has demonstrated it can launch as secondary passengers, these officials said they saw only two scenarios:
Either the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) scraps or renders meaningless, through regular waivers, the current ban on commercial U.S. satellite launches on Indian rockets, or small satellite developers will increasingly order satellites built outside the United States.
The USTR is currently reviewing the policy that bars commercial U.S. satellites – including non-U.S. satellites with U.S. components – from being exported for launch aboard India’s PSLV rocket unless they are granted a waiver.
Multiple waivers have been granted, but some small-rocket developers want to maintain the policy to help them gain traction in a market in which they will compete with India’s government-financed PSLV.
India’s PSLV pricing for commercial payloads is not substantially less expensive than its competitors in China, Russia, Europe and the United States, according to a list of prices published by the Indian Prime Minister’s office.
One example: a price of 17.5 million euros, or $19.4 million at mid-2014 exchange rates, to launch the 700-kilogram commercial Spot 7 Earth observation satellite, owned by Airbus Defence and Space of France. Spot 7 was the lead payload for the June 2014 launch. Smaller satellites from Germany, Singapore and Canada were also aboard and contributed to the total revenue generated from the launch.
How much pricing flexibility the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and its commercial arm, Antrix, have with PSLV is unclear. ISRO officials said after the most recent PSLV launch that they want to increase the vehicle’s annual cadence and give Indian industry more control over the program.
Officials from PSLV customer companies said they had no special insight into the current state of U.S.-Indian negotiations over the Commercial Space Launch Agreement (CSLA). The proposed CSLA language has not been made public. But they said past negotiations have collapsed because of CSLA provisions that India considered beyond the pale.
“There were sticky points,” said one industry official whose company has had commercial dealings with ISRO/Antrix for PSLV launches. “One of the stickiest points was the required permission to access and audit the books of ISRO during office hours. No sovereign nation will allow you to audit the books of their space agency under normal conditions.”
Another industry official said Indian launch officials privately say the CSLA is an insult to India’s national pride.
U.S. government officials said the current CSLA discussions with India were begun following Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX’s introduction of its Falcon 1e rocket, which was introduced in 2009 but retired in 2009 when SpaceX focused on the much larger Falcon 9 vehicle.
Despite the Falcon 1’s retirement, U.S. insistence that India sign a CLSA has been maintained. More recently, several other U.S.-based companies have begun developing small rockets.
Pressure to allow PSLV to launch commercial U.S. satellites has increased with the takeoff of the small-satellite market. U.S. companies including Google-owned Terra Bella, Planet, Spire, PlanetiQ and Blacksky Global have booked Indian launches for parts of their intended low-orbiting constellations after securing U.S. government waivers.
The U.S. government in the past has negotiated similar agreements with Russia, China and Ukraine, although it is unclear whether these accords had the same level of oversight.
The U.S. government “did have some sort of access to Chinese, Russian and Ukrainian prices… These had been within 7.5 percent of comparable Western prices,” said a former U.S. government official familiar with the agreements.
U.S. satellites are barred from using Chinese rockets not because of pricing, but ostensibly because of technology-transfer concerns. The future availability of current Russian and Ukrainian rockets, most of them converted ballistic missiles, is unclear.
This official said it would not be surprising if the USTR wanted to resist taking on the role of “some sort of police force checking international pricing for these types of launches. Such a system is cumbersome and difficult to enforce.”
India’s PSLV launched four satellites for San Francisco-based Spire Global in September 2015. Twelve satellites for San Francisco-based Planet and one for Terra Bella of Mountain View, California, were launched in June. Blacksky Global is planning a launch on the next PSLV, according to the vehicle’s current manifest.
Already some European companies are including in their sales pitches the fact that they do not use U.S. components and thus are not bound by U.S. policy. “It takes a potential future worry off the table for the customer,” an official with one of these companies said.
The ability to fit what was once considered advanced technology into a small, relatively low-cost satellite has encouraged not only Western companies to plan business models based on them, but also expanded the number of nations owning at least one of their own spacecraft.
Space industry consultancy Euroconsult on July 19 said its latest market survey found that 24 emerging-market nations have launched 69 satellites in the past 20 years. Another 23 nations are expected to become first-time satellite owners by 2025, Euroconsult said.