India sets world record with 104 satellites in a single rocket launch
by Ryan Whitwam
Gravity is a good thing when it keeps you firmly planted on Earth’s surface, but it’s quite a nuisance when you’re trying to launch things into space. The economics of space launches are harsh; every ounce sent up has an astronomical cost attached, but the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) just set an efficiency world record. It successfully launched 104 satellites into space with a single rocket. A lot of them were very small, but that’s still a big achievement.
The launch was carried out with a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), an expendable launch system developed by India specifically to get multiple satellites into orbit in a single rocket. It was previously used to launch 17 satellites from countries like Canada, the UK, and the US into space. That was impressive enough, but the new 104-satellite launch shatters the old record held by Russia of 37 satellites in a single launch. That one was set back in 2014.
The ISRO mission included a payload of 103 nanosatellites, 96 of which belonged to a US space firm called Planet. The remaining nanosatellites come from India, the Netherlands, Kazakhstan, Switzerland, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. There was also a 714 kg (1,574 pound) Indian satellite known as Cartosat-2, which will be used to Earth observations. The total payload had a mass of 1,377kg (3,036 pounds), so the Cartosat-2 was the bulk of it. Each nanosatellite is only about six and a half kilograms (14.3 pounds).
The infusion of 96 new satellites brings Planet’s fleet to a total of 144. That’s actually another record — the largest private satellite fleet in operation. Planet’s goal is to image the entire surface of the Earth every single day. A lofty goal to be sure, but the company says it now has the necessary hardware in orbit to make it happen. It expects to start imaging operations within three months, capturing as much as 2 million square kilometers per day.
India has moved aggressively to lower the cost of its space exploration efforts. In 2014 it sent a probe to Mars for $74 million, a fraction of what similar missions cost NASA and the ESA. Much of that is, of course, the lower cost of labor in India. Efficient designs like the PSLV are part of it, too. Private space firms like SpaceX are taking a different route with highly advanced rockets. The SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage is capable of returning to Earth propulsively after launch to be reused. If India can continue launching satellites on this scale, it could be a rival to private space firms for launch services.
Originally published at www.extremetech.com on February 15, 2017.