Satellite Project Management_A Techno-Managerial Challenge

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Talk by A Rajarajan, Director, Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SHAR), Sriharikota, played a pivotal role in developing many innovative technologies for the development of various satellite and launch vehicle structures for ISRO’s programs. He delivered the keynote address at the 9th Dr K C G Verghese Endowment Lecture.

For ISRO, space is about a scientific pursuit for applications with a lot of common sense and a little bit of engineering; and that should lead to socio-economic development. Earlier R&D used to be done at ISRO. Now, it has gone to academic institutions, including for disruptive technologies.

In any R&D environment, there has to be an organisational set-up. Each lab should have a goal and should come out with meaningful innovations. The management should be able to provide a technology. It should lead to a development of a product and a process to realise the objective of the utility. There should be scope to commercialise the technology that comes up in the process. Institutions that want to work on satellite development must take note of these factors.


In ISRO, the funding comes from the government and we can use it only for national needs like strategic application and strategic communication. Earlier government used to do everything. Today, there are so many players. The private players should come forward to making a communication satellite or an earth observation satellite. The strategic areas can be taken care of by the government. For private needs, the customer needs to fund the project. For example, we are launching a satellite for Tata Play and the fund comes from them, including the launch and other related costs.

Invention and Innovation

The institutions must be able to harness the result of an invention or an innovation. Both invention and innovation should yield a product or service, with the available resources and within the given timeframe. The product or service must provide a competitive edge. Feedback should be obtained from the market on the product and service and should be used in future R&D.

Why Satellite?

  • It is cost effective as compared to terrestrial systems. Thousands of watch towers can be replaced by one satellite.
  • Independent of the distance, communication links can be maintained. That is why, BSNL is able to provide communication in remote areas.
  • It covers a vast area. We have ease of configuring a network-state to state, nation to nation or even continent to continent.
  • We can get a space-based reference, accurately. We can even give a reference for the earth in the solar system.
  • Accessibility in every vantage point, using which, for example, we can predict where a flash flood is going to occur.
  • The coverage of landmarks and which are not even our own.

What is the application?

To configure a satellite, we must know who our customer is and what application they need. Let us look at some customers and their applications:

  • For AIR, the application is radio broadcasting.
  • For AAI, the application is landing of flights.
  • For IMD, it is weather monitoring.
  • Hospitals need telemedicine using which they can provide the best treatment from remote.
  • Banking sector needs VSAT for their ATM network.
  • There are civilian and strategic requirements including navigation solutions.
  • The Ministry of Earth Sciences must know where the oceans are warming up.
  • Tata Sky or Sun Network need DTH connectivity.
  • Doordarshan is a national need. For the right and factual information, we depend on it.
  • Digital India is connecting all parts of India through network connectivity, so we can communicate with people even in inaccessible areas during times of disaster. We can also digitally map the entire India for the resources including manpower. This calls for huge inputs.

97% of the revenue is from the data that we get -not from the space vehicle or the satellite. Therefore it is important how we well we can leverage the data for various applications and commercialise that.  In fact, the biggest revenue is made by those who don’t own even a single satellite or a launch vehicle, similar to the Ola model. With so much of applications, the world is wide open for anyone who wants to enter this space.

The milestones

The major milestones in a satellite project are

  • defining
  • configuring
  • getting approvals
  • procurements and making
  • subsystem testing
  • system level testing
  • shipping to the launch site
  • preparing for launch
  • in-orbit testing
  • handing over to operations, if everything is successful.
  • Finally decommissioning. As a responsible person, we need to decommission the satellite from its orbit once its useful life period is over. Otherwise, we will add to the menace of space debris. Also, that orbit will be required for some other satellite.

Defining the need

There are four aspects of defining a need of a satellite:

1) Who needs the services?

2) Do we have the technology or should we buy it from within India or from another country or develop the technology?

3) What is the performance required and the specifications?

4) What are the regulatory aspects?

These should help decide the payload configuration and for that payload, a suitable satellite system. The satellite system can vary from being rudimentary to advanced, depending on life span and how sophisticated it should be. There is no point in spending highly on a payload for a satellite system that is going to be in space only for six months. Then the four questions that need to be asked are: For what? How long? Why am I doing this? What is the service that I will be able to provide?

Depending on the satellite and its weight, the launch vehicle will be decided. The weight of a satellite may vary from 1 kg to 10 tons. There are many launch vehicles available commercially.

Reflectance- The Core Principle

Reflectance is the chief property by which all earth observation satellites work. It may be 300 kms or 600 kms away from the earth. It observes the earth’s reflectance through different wavelengths and percentage of frequency. The reflectance from land, soil, vegetation, water, buildings, forests and roads happen at different wavelengths. There is a slight refractance from the atmosphere. Earth observation satellite picks up these wavelengths, which are different for different objects and accordingly deciphers the objects and various features. This is one critical area where technology and science come together.

Just like an Amitabh Bachan conveys different messages in different images of different ads, each image gives a different information. The depth, the canvas, the resolution and the information differ for different images. That is why we need high resolution, multi-spectral and hyper spectral imaging systems. Even a book in one language in the hands of a student can be picked up by a satellite, translated in the boy’s native language and delivered to him through an App.

The Subsystems

The factors of the satellite system that need to be worked out are the mass, power requirement, volume, cost, integration, reliability and time frame. How well you are able to transmit and receive and the quality of the data help us deciding the payload.

Humans are like satellites. We observe and communicate data. To do this, humans should have a sound body. Similarly, structurally, the satellite should be very stable, to keep everything in position. Depending on the outside temperature, we take some measures to keep our body temperature under control. The thermal control system of the satellite takes care of this need.  We need a good deployment area. There has to be a propulsion system to propel the satellite into the orbit. The components should be able withstand temperatures from -180 to +180 degree C. We need pyrotechnic devices. The antennas should be in place.

The solar panel systems produce solar power but this must be regulated and supplied. Each payload requires a certain power, at a certain voltage level. The instrumentation and digital system helps in collection of the data that we require. It must be able to communicate the data between the payloads, between the spacecrafts, earth to spacecraft and between the ground stations. All should be linked in a proper manner. There are different sensors to sense the temperature, wind, position, etc. The control system keeps the satellite in control.

The Design Elements

The structure has to be designed using modelling. The satellite gets exposed to radiation from both the sun and the earth. Electrostatic charge has to be accounted for in the design. The sensors should be correctly positioned, so that the satellite can be oriented in the right position, 24 X 7 for 365 days for over several years. Finally, everything must be put in the launch vehicle and launched.

For assembly and integration, we need mechanical faculty, electronic faculty and ground checkout faculty. The layout needs to be designed keeping into account the mechanical, electrical and environmental factors. For instance, the heat generating elements should compensate the cold areas. The rocket is subjected to severe vibration and the components should withstand this vibration. For 15 years, the satellite will be in space and during that period, the technology should not become obsolete.  Special requirements, if any, must also be taken into account (e.g.: coded / encrypted communication for secrecy).

There must be one nodal agency to coordinate everything. In our case, the payload is developed by the Space Application Centre in Ahmedabad. Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) takes care of the antenna subsystem and provides the launch vehicle, which is opt for the particular application.

The supply management consists of analysing the requirements against available options, working out budgets and fund flow, establishing a business model, management of obsolescence, working a way through purchase procedures, managing transfer of technology, acceptance criteria, maintaining an inventory and planning ahead for the next cycle.

ISRO’s Different Models

  • In ISRO, we started with the manpower supply model.
  • In the second model, we provide the design and drawings and the industry makes it.
  • In the third model, we provide the specifications and the industry designs and provides the products. There are many integrators in places like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. There are experts in the components. Some may be an expert in landing gear and we can take it from them. This model also was successfully established.
  • In the fourth model, the industry comes to ISRO and develops the products and services within ISRO. They can use ISRO’s facilities and don’t need to invest. They can learn the technology and multiply that. This too has been tried out successfully.
  • The fifth model is making the satellite by ISRO.
  • In the sixth model, we give the complete end-to-end specifications and configurations of the satellite and launch vehicle and the industry makes it and gives to us. This is what we are presently approaching.
  • In the next model, we will provide the specifications for the satellite and the launch vehicle. Both will be made by the industry and will be launched from a convenient place. It could be even sea.

In the last two models, we are open to all the industries. Already, the reforms are in place.

The challenges:

We have many challenges in the satellite project and some of them are:

  • Scheduling and optimisation
  • Managing multiple objectives of the satellite and the payload. Managing this requires multi-faceted expertise.
  • Prioritising and managing the project, when there are many other competing projects.
  • Technology management
  • The matrix management of people reporting to different people, for different responsibilities
  • The availability, maturity and management of people
  • Concurrent engineering, which is very important in a spacecraft. We have nearly a dozen disciplines, where everybody should know what is happening in the other areas and how we should interface. One change, in one area, will impact all the other areas and the integrator should manage this change.
  • It takes roughly 18 months to develop the system. In the meanwhile, we must see if there has been a disruptive technology and do a mid-course correction.

The Timeframe

The timeframe for the project, roughly is:

  • 12 months for planning
  • 14 months to identify all the packages for the subsystems
  • 9 months for hardware activity
  • 3 months for testing
  • 24 months for making the complete system ready.

There will be overlaps between the different stages. There must be communication between the ideator, the configurator, the implementer, the solution provider and the integrator.

Different applications call for completely different configurations. This makes the industry become wary, because the investment made for one satellite may not be useful in the making of another satellite. Recently, we launched 14 satellites, all of which were different from one another.  Managing the uniqueness of the satellite calls for advance planning, optimisation, no compromise on reliability, thorough follow-up on mission critical elements and taking decisive actions. The right scheduler is important.

Management of all these is a big challenge. Providing infrastructure for making satellite is a good business model. You must have a method to do everything. In spacecraft, what is most important is methods, methods, methods. We should not change tested methods unnecessarily. As we can see, the satellite project is highly complex.

Managing People

The people in the spacecraft industry are from different backgrounds and their excitement level will be very high. They are with high IQ and EQ. Integrating these people and harnessing them as a team is a big task. There are people of champion stuff who just pride in doing their work, without bothering about recognition. There are doers who do the work given and there are sceptics. There are also blockers. You should have them all because they will make you to think in different aspects.

ISRO values people who analyse each and every aspect of each activity, rather those who tick all boxes without analysis. This is where sceptics and blockers have a major role to play. There are silent persons like pythons; and active persons like rattle snakes. You must know what the silent persons have in their mind. Oftentimes, the silent pythons carry more vital information until they are tapped in the right way. We are clear about the active rattle snakes and we don’t need to worry about them. One needs to find a way to see that all these different people gel and work together.

Be a Contributor

We need to create multiple leaders and achievers. We must retain the highly skilled manpower and motivate everyone. Everyone should be given a vision of career growth. In ISRO, we try to give a feel of sense of achievement from each and every individual and every team. We ensure that everybody is a contributor.

By contributing, one can be reliable, make the first move, understand one’s scope of work and cultivate healthy official relationships. A manager or leader will work for a limited time. But a contributor will work till his end. Every one of us must tell ourselves, “I must be a contributor.” In spacecraft, we ensure that people become contributors, who can do wonders to the nation and the world.