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India Becomes Hot Spot for Satellite Launches

India is getting into the business of launching satellites, giving rise to a new space race. The country's space program recently put 10 small satellites in orbit, all in one go, an achievement topped only by Russia. The launch signaled India's desire to capture a larger share of the global commercial satellite launch market - a $90-billion-a-year industry that, so far, has been dominated by the U.S. and Russia. Raymond Thibodeaux reports from Bangalore, India's space agency headquarters.

Got a satellite that needs launching? Try India.

S. Satish is the spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization, India's space agency. Asked why more and more countries are looking to outsource their satellite launchings to India, he had this to say:

: The first [reason] is the high reliability. The second is it is very cost effective. These are the factors that are driving most customers to come to India. We are definitely cheaper than other international rates.

: How much cheaper?

SATISH: [Laughs] Once the customer comes in, we will tell him the rates.

Turns out, India's space program is significantly cheaper. India's launch services run about $8,000 per kilogram, compared to roughly $18,000 dollars or more per kilogram charged by other major commercial satellite launch companies. And as for reliability, Satish says 12 of India's last 13 satellite launching missions have been successful, gaining its space program a good reputation.

But not everyone is happy about India's newfound prowess in the exosphere. Earlier this year, several Arab nations along with Pakistan criticized India for launching an Israeli satellite with high-resolution, wide-area radar imaging capability. In other words, a potential spy satellite.

Roddam Narasimha is an advisor to India's space agency and an aerospace scientist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Center, a science and space research institute in Jakkur, a city just north of Bangalore. Speaking by telephone, he says that politics too often hinders the free-flow of technology.

"Space and anything that is connected to rockets and satellites is subject to a variety of technology-denial regimes," Narasimha said. "As long as those technology-denial regimes are part of politics and trade in the world, these questions will in fact arise."

Still, the most lucrative and fastest-growing sector of the commercial launch market is telecommunication satellites. These satellites handle broadband internet and mobile phone traffic as well as other digital services. The problem is the satellites are heavy, weighing as much as eight tons.

India's space program does not yet have the capability to heave satellites that heavy into orbit. But not for long, Satish says.

"We are developing a new generation launcher that can put a four-ton satellite into geostationary orbit," Satish said. "That will give us an edge in conquering commercial launch services for communication satellites. That's where the big money is."

India, with its $1-billion-a-year space program, is eager to be the sixth country to reach the moon next year. The mission includes an $83 million lunar orbiter that will provide detailed mapping of the moon's surface. A manned lunar mission is planned by 2020.

These are logical next steps for India's space agency, but giant leaps for India, a nation eager to become an economic powerhouse despite the fact that the vast majority of its 1.1 billion people still live on less than two dollars a day.