The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV)’s cluster launch of ten satellites yesterday adds one more feather to the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro)’s cap. Although this was the PSLV’s 13th flight, it was only the third time its core-alone version (without the six strap-on motors in the first stage) put satellites into orbit. In the space launch business, cluster launches are not uncommon, and Nasa and the European Space Agency (ESA) sometimes do loft half a dozen
or more satellites simultaneously into orbit. The PSLV itself has successfully launched multiple satellites three times before (three satellites each on May 26, 1999 and October 22, 2001, and four on January 10, 2007). Even then placing ten satellites, even if they weighed less than 50 kilos together, must have been a big challenge. For it meant the PSLV’s fourth stage firing of all the satellites in a timed sequence, to avoid collision.
Since its first successful flight in 1994, the PSLV’s capabilities have been steadily upgraded and today it can carry payloads double that of its original design. And its finest hour is still to come when, later this year, an augmented version of the PSLV will be used to launch India’s first moon mission. The PSLV’s reliability and cost-effectiveness evidently helped Isro win its first commercial launch contracts. But the space agency has a long way to go before becoming a major player in the global launch market. The launch capabilities of the PSLV and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) are relatively modest in international terms. And many of the foreign satellites they can carry are likely to be government-sponsored ones, which are often preferred to domestic launches.
For the rest, there will be intense competition from other launch providers. Russia, for instance, offers comparatively cheap launches on a range of rockets (including converted ballistic missiles), as does the ESA with its dependable Arianne boosters. In any case, the big moneymaking opportunities obviously lie in launching heavy communication satellites. That is a market segment Isro can hope to tap only after the more robust GSLV Mark-III becomes operational in a few years’ time.