Isro launches record 104 satellites into orbit

People watch as a rocket from space agency ISRO takes off successfully to launch a record 104 satellites, including India’s earth observation satellite onboard PSLV-C37 from the spaceport of Sriharikota on Wednesday. (Photo: PTI)
Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) launched as many as 104 satellites from a single rocket on Wednesday, a global record, from its Sriharikota launch station off the Andhra coast.

The bulk of these satellites were from the US; some other countries also hired Isro’s services.

Isro hopes this development would help its aim of making the country a one-stop shop to build and hurl micro satellites. There is a global shortage of launchers for small satellite missions and there’s also a rush from private business in the US and Europe to send hundreds of these to space for various needs. Among the uses would be weather tracking, sea navigation and high-speed speed internet to remoter parts.

In the next five years, at least 3,000 such satellites, the sizes varying from a small shoebox to a 24-inch television set, weighing between one and 50 kg, are expected to be built and launched by various  players, according to SpaceWorks Inc, a US space industry researcher. 

The biggest of it would be from OneWeb, the SoftBank-funded satellite venture, which has India’s Bharti as a partner. It would be launching 648 small satellites to provide high-speed internet to various corners of the world. 

Planet Labs, which acquired the satellite infrastructure of Google last week, has, for the second time on Wednesday, used Isro’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket to hurl 88 micro satellites (‘Doves’) into space for high-resolution images of the Earth.  Spire Global, a satellite firm that tracks navigation on the seas by providing real-time weather data to ships, used the Indian rocket to send up eight Lemur-2 satellites. These micro satellites have a lifespan of two to three years and need to be replaced regularly. 

Antrix Corp, commercial arm of Isro, expects around 500 small and micro satellites to be built and launched annually in the world. “We would like to tap into that market. We have a good product and service and (most) small satellite customers are very much with us; PSLV is in demand,” said Rakesh Sasibhushan, chairman, Antrix.

So far, Isro’s PSLV rocket has launched 225 satellites, of which 179 were for foreign customers.

Analysts say there is a demand for launch facilities that Isro can capitalise on but not for making the satellites, as these companies want to control the entire experience.

“As these systems need a lot of satellites permanently in orbit, they need to launch often, as their satellites have a very short life,” says Rachel Villain, principal advisor at Euroconsult, a global space advisory. “For these types of satellites, there is indeed a shortage of launch capacity.”

India has already seen the start of a process to share satellite-making technology with private entities in this country, to build for Isro and the world. Last year, Isro contracted to a consortium of small players to build two Navic navigation satellites.

“Whenever there is a large production of satellites, there will also be a requirement for sub-systems. There are many industries which can produce for global companies,” said A S Kiran Kumar, chairman of Isro, in an interview last year.

Euroconsult analysts caution that the idea of a one-stop shop to build and launch satellites has yet to be proven in the commercial satellite industry. 

“As lot of the cubesat/nanosat constellation projects are initiated by engineering start-ups. They want to master satellite design and production. As launch brokers are emerging, it could make it easier for them to find adequate launch capacity,” says Villain.

How Isro blasted a ton

1 Cartosat-2 - Indian earth observation satellite built and launched in 3 months
2 INS-2 - Isro nano satellites to demonstrate technologies for the future
5 One micro satellite each from Israel, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates
8 Lemur-2 satellites for weather tracking by the US space start-up Spire Systems
88 Imagery satellites of Planet Labs, a US start-up owned by former Nasa scientists
179 Total foreign satellites launched by Isro on its PSLV rocket
225 Total satellites launched by Isro so far

Of course, it’s rocket science

* The launch of PSLV-C37 in a single payload, including the Cartosat-2 series and 103 co-passenger satellites, together weighed over 650 kg (1,433 lb)
* A ‘flock’ of 88 will get to work to map every inch of the planet in super high resolution, creating images of limitless potential
* The Mars mission cost Isro about $73 mn, nearly one-tenth the cost of a Nasa probe sent to orbit the planet the previous year
* The low price tag led Prime Minister Narendra Modi to quip that India had sent a satellite into space for less than Americans had spent making the movie Gravity


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