The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) looks set to blaze a new trail with the upcoming launch of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C 37 from Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. If all goes well, ISRO’s workhorse launcher will lift off on Wednesday carrying a suite of 104 satellites in one go. This includes 101 nano-satellites (weighing below 10 kilograms each) from five countries — the United States, Netherlands, Israel, Kazakhstan and Switzerland — along with a couple of Indian nano-satellites and a heavy Cartosat.
Russia launched into orbit 37 satellites simultaneously in June 2014, while the US orbited 29 satellites in November 2013. But the hype building over records being toppled on this launch is only of statistical importance. Indeed, Isro scientists acknowledge this is a different PSLV launch compared to previous missions. According to B Jayakumar, mission director, the focus of the launch is anything but “creating records”; instead the idea is “to utilise the excess capacity available on the PSLV.” The PSLV has a payload capacity of more than 1,500 kilos, but it’s carrying only 1,360 on this mission.
It would be touch and go for the mission as ISRO switches the angular degrees at which the small satellites are released into orbit to avoid collisions. While the three heavier satellites would be ejected separately along the launcher’s axis, the rest of the satellites would be released radially at different angles.
The real significance of the launch, therefore, lies in the fact that it allows ISRO to test its capabilities for multiple launches of small satellites. This is crucial if India wants to grab a slice of the global market for nano and micro-satellites, which is set to grow close to $3 billion in the next three years. ISRO sources point out that some 3,000 satellites will be ready for launch in the next 10 years for navigation, maritime, surveillance and other space-based applications.
Having a large number of small satellites instead of a few heavy ones makes sense as they could cover the same piece of ground more frequently — say, every 15 minutes — for collecting imagery. This could spell a revolution in the way satellites are used — whether it is helping fishermen identify catches, keeping track of crops, or detecting natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. Similarly, increasing miniaturisation in electronics makes redundant the use of heavy satellites for telecommunications and remote sensing. Smaller satellites deliver better coverage at a fraction of the cost.
No wonder major space agencies are more interested in developing launch-specific boosters tailored to the needs of smaller satellites. As satellites become smaller and less expensive to build, launch vehicles need to be correspondingly cheaper so that the number and rate of launches could be higher to keep launch costs down.
Enter ISRO which has arguably chalked up more successful PSLV missions — 38 so far — than any other space agency has with comparable boosters. That ISRO has done this with less funds and fully home-grown technology makes it all the more remarkable.
With India’s proposed orbiter mission to Venus and Mars Orbiter Mission 2 (this time with a lander to plant the tricolour on the Red Planet) on the horizon, ISRO is in for some exciting times.
Prakash Chandra is a science writer. The views expressed are personal.