21/02/2017 2:51 PM IST | Updated 23/02/2017 8:33 AM IST

ISRO Is Reaching For The Stars—And Succeeding

India is taking on the goliaths in the $121 billion global space launch services market.

ARUN SANKAR via Getty Images

With its landmark simultaneous launch of 104 satellites from one rocket on 15 February, India's space programme not only shattered the previous 37-satellite launch record by Russian space agency Roscosmos in June 2014, but emphatically signalled its intent to muscle into the multi-billion dollar global space sweepstakes.

Only three of the 104 satellites in the commercial launch were Indian, with as many as 96 sent by two American customers, and one each by Israel, the UAE, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Kazakhstan. The largest of them was India's 714kg earth observation satellite, the other 103 being "nano satellites" weighing a combined 664kg. K. Sivam, Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, in Kerala, termed the launch immensely complex as it had to be ensured that the swarming satellites did not collide with one another within the 11 minutes that they were released one by one.

India's space programme has realised spectacular capabilities on a shoestring budget.

The load of satellites was lofted into their polar sun-synchronous orbits by the 44.4-metre-tall and 294-tonne four-stage Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle PSLV-C37 of ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), which took off from its launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) on the Sriharikota islet off the eastern coast.

ISRO's feat sets an enviable benchmark for the other top five space-faring nations/regions— the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and Europe with its European Space Agency. Putting commercial satellites into space for a fee is a growing business sector, as countries worldwide seek greater and more high-technology imagery and telecommunications. Of the $323 billion global space industry, its commercial support segment that includes launch services is alone worth $121 billion.

ISRO Chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar stressed that the aim of the combined launch was not to set a record, but to help ISRO maximise its capability and expertise. "Last year we saw nine successful launches," said SDSC director P. Kunhikrishnan. "This year has begun with a remarkable event and we congratulate all the customers for placing their confidence in ISRO."

India's space programme has realised spectacular capabilities on a shoestring budget. For instance, ISRO's Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) launched in November 2013 cost just $73 million, compared to NASA's MAVEN Mars mission, launched around the same period, which had a $671 million price-tag. India's programme is also distinct from other countries in that it has a strong societal and humanitarian approach, with applications in rural resources, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, telemedicine, tele-education, water and environment, weather forecasting, disaster management support and outreach through direct-to-home television.

Its track record of negligible failures and low launch fees and salaries makes ISRO a preferred partner for launching small satellites in low earth orbit. Antrix Corporation Ltd, ISRO's commercial arm, has an order book worth $75 million and will be recovering half the commercial launch cost of the PSLV-C37 from the five foreign customers.

ISRO is working on GSLV-III, the country's heaviest and most powerful launch vehicle, designed to lift satellites weighing up to 5 tonnes to GTOs of 36,000 km.

While a typical PSLV mission costs $15 million, launching a satellite on Falcon 9, the launch vehicle of SpaceX of Elon Musk, costs $62 million, on Russia's Proton, $90 million, on Arianespace's Ariane-5 rocket, $140 million, which drops to about $100 million after subsidies, and on NASA's intermediate-class Atlas V, $264 million. Prohibitive costs deterred NASA from flying its space shuttles from 2011 and it turned to the private sector for ferrying supplies to and from its International Space Station.

India's Department of Space (DoS) got a net allocation of ₹9094 crore ($1.4 billion) for 2017-18, in comparison to NASA's allocation of $19.3 billion, nearly the same as in 2016, but with a significant increase for its Space Launch System program.

Of the two San Francisco-based customers for the PSLV-C37 launch, Planet Labs launched 88 Dove satellites for daily imaging of the earth, while Spire Global launched eight Lemur 2 satellites for collating ship tracking and weather data. This was the second launch of Dove satellites aboard the PSLV, after 12 of them had been launched last June.

This is despite the fact that US companies are denied the use of Indian launch vehicles by the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, COMSTAC, which ruled that Antrix has an unfair advantage over the American private sector as it is an Indian government entity. This rule is, however, often waived, because India is by far cheaper than all its competitors, particularly in the launch of light payloads like nano satellites.

The limitedness of the PSLV in launching payloads only up to 1. 75 tonnes to sun-synchronous orbits (SSOs) of 600km altitude and of the Geo-Stationary Launch Vehicle-II (GSLV-II) of lifting only up to 2 .5 tonnes to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbits (GTOs) has restrained ISRO's entry into the lucrative market for heavy satellite launches and also led it to pay heavily for the use of European rockets for launching Indian satellites above 2 tonnes.

India will, however, soon breach these barriers with the imminent launch of ISRO's GSLV-III, the country's heaviest and most powerful launch vehicle, designed to lift satellites weighing up to 5 tonnes to GTOs of 36,000 km. The agency is also preparing for its second lunar exploratory mission, Chandrayaan II, scheduled for next year.

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