As the Indian space program looks to cement its position as the dominant destination for low-cost launches, the country’s primary space agency, ISRO, put 104 satellites into orbit on Wednesday, the most in history.
When it took off at 9:28 a.m. from Sriharikota, a tiny barrier island in southeastern India, the workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle carried nanosatellites from seven countries. The satellites included those built by companies and universities in Israel, Kazakhstan, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates inaddiiotn to an overwhelming 88 satellites from San Francisco-based Planet Labs Inc.
The Space Exploration Technologies Corp’s Falcon 9 rocket, which went up in flames in September, was scheduled to take into the Earth’s orbit at least one of these small satellites — the UAE’s Nayif. But now as companies hunger for more data and communication channels, smaller and cheaper carriers are gaining popularity even though Elon Musk has returned to the skies since the accident.
“It’s not just a record-setting mission, but further consolidation of the already well known technological prowess of the Indian space program,” said Susmita Mohanty, chief executive officer of Earth2Orbit, a Bangalore-based space start-up that helped Google Inc. launch a satellite on the PSLV last June. “The small-satellite launch market is growing at an alarming pace and this launch is a way to say that the PSLV is all set to respond to emerging-market demands.”
There were no comments available to the media from John Taylor, spokesman of Space Exploration Technologies.
In addition to conducting microgravity experiments without making an expensive trip out to the International Space Station, the 104 satellites will be used to map the Earth, track ships to monitor illegal fishing and piracy. While the lighest of the satellites was the Nayif – weighing just 1.1 kilograms, the heaviest of them — India’s CartoSat-2D — weighs 714 kilograms.
In 2013, NASA had launched 29 satellites in one launch which was eclipsed by Russia’s Dnepr mission that had held the record of 33 satellites and was launched in 2014. And until now, India’s biggest ever single launch was hen it put 20 in orbit in 2016. Touching almost double the amount in 2015, there were 208 satellites launched in 2014.
David Todd, head of space content at UK-based Seradata Ltd. said that SpaceX won’t deal directly with nanosat operators, while flight arranging outfits will book a SpaceX rocket for an intermediary carrier vehicle as very small satellites is a niche enterprise.
However, he said that ISRO’s rivals — such as Virgin Galactic Ltd.’s LauncherOne and Rocket Lab’s Electron – that carry much smaller payloads of about 20 nanosatellites, financing for small satellites is being significantly boosted by venture capital-funded start-ups.
“Multi-launches of nanosats might be a way in to the U.S. launch market for ISRO/Antrix,” Todd said. He was referring to the commercial unit of India’s space agency that has faced U.S. sanctions on allegations its state-ownership gives it unfair advantages. “Other competitors are arriving, so India needs to grab market share during the current market window.”
(Adapted from Bloomberg)