A purely commercial contract, says Madhavan Nair

Our Bureau

Bangalore, Jan. 21 ISRO on Monday quietly launched Israeli observation satellite TecSAR (also called Polaris) from its Sriharikota launchpad. TecSAR, generally known to be an advanced spy satellite for the Israeli military, is also the national space agency’s second commercial launch order.

The date and the operation — at 9.15 a.m. — were closely guarded though the deal has been known for the last few months — ostensibly at Israeli military’s request.

ISRO’s Chairman, Mr G. Madhavan Nair, sought to downplay TecSAR’s nature and did not disclose the transaction details. “I wouldn’t say we have launched a spy satellite. We don’t know the real contents, the instruments on it or its use but only the overall characteristics. It was a technology satellite and a purely commercial contract for us,” he told Business Line.

ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix Corporation later announced that it had successfully placed the 300-kg TecSAR, equipped with a synthetic aperture radar, in the intended orbit of 450 km x 580 km. The reportedly copybook-precise launch lasted nearly 20 minutes.

A release quoting the Antrix Executive Director, Mr K.R. Sridhara Murthi, said ISRO’s “second full-fledged commercial launch has been successfully completed today. The launch of TecSAR was executed under a commercial contract between Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Antrix Corporation.”

In April 2007, the PSLV (polar satellite launch vehicle, generally employed to place smaller satellites in a lower, pole-to-pole orbit) also launched ISRO’s first full-fledged commercial contract that of another 300-kg Italian astronomical satellite Agile.

That contract fetched $11 million (around Rs 45 crore) for Antrix. Mr Nair confirmed that TecSAR’s bill could be comparable “as the same PSLV is used and we have to recover the vehicle cost”. The all-weather, high-resolution TecSAR, dubbed a mere technology demonstrator, is said to be Israel’s most advanced observation military satellite to-date. The synthetic aperture radar can see objects on Earth during day and night, through cloud and rain. ISRO is also coming up with a radar satellite towards this year-end.

Unconfirmed reports said TecSAR is capable of seeing up to 10 cm. In comparison, the normal Indian Earth observation satellites ‘see’ objects the size of 1 metre and more. Better satellites can ‘see’ up to around 0.8m, while Western low-orbit spy satellites can see even sharper.

This was the 25th satellite launch mission from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, SHAR. “The PSLV,” the release said, “has emerged as the workhorse launch vehicle of ISRO with 11 consecutively successful flights, so far. PSLV is also slated to launch India’s first spacecraft to moon, Chandrayaan-1, in 2008.”

Polaris was designed, developed and fabricated by MBT Space, a division of the State-owned Israeli Aerospace industries, along with Israel’s high-tech industries: ELTA, Tadiran Spectralink and Rafael.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 22, 2008)
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