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India Launches Hefty Satellite

NEW DELHI--The Indian space program took a big step toward competing in the international arena yesterday with the successful launch of another remote-sensing satellite (IRS-1D) aboard its own Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The launch means that India has joined the United States, Russia, Japan, France, and China as the only nations with the ability to put large (1000-kilogram) satellites into a polar, sun-synchronous orbit, a necessary step toward achieving the geosynchronous orbits used by commercial telecommunications satellites.

"It's a perfect run and a significant achievement in self-reliance," says Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, chair of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Adds Anila Strahan of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth, "India has a very mature space program, and today's launch is certainly a feather in its cap."

The rocket, which took off from the Sriharikota Range in the Bay of Bengal, also boosts the country's fleet of remote-sensing satellites. The 1200-kg satellite--a clone was orbited in December 1995 aboard a Russian-built rocket--has cameras that provide a spatial resolution of 5.8 meters, the highest of any civilian satellite now in orbit. They will be used to monitor urban development and forests, as well as to carry out mapping surveys. ISRO has joined with SI EOSAT Inc., a leading remote sensing company in Norman, Oklahoma, to set up stations in the United States, Germany, Thailand, and Taiwan that can download and transmit the data.

Indian space officials hope that the four-stage PSLV, whose development and launch cost $13 million, will take the country into the $60 billion commercial space market and make ISRO an inexpensive and viable option for some of the hundreds of low-Earth orbit satellites scheduled to be launched in the next 3 years. But some analysts warn that ISRO first needs to show it is fast and reliable. "To really make a significant dent in the world launch market," says one industry observer, "India needs to reduce its turnaround time from several months to a few weeks."