India Completes Record Satellite Launch as Space War Intensifies

  • India puts 104 satellites into orbit; previous record 33
  • At least one was expected to be launched by SpaceX in Sept.

India’s space agency put 104 satellites into orbit on Wednesday, the most in history, as it looks to cement its position as the dominant destination for low-cost launches.

The workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle carried nanosatellites from seven countries when it took off at 9:28 a.m. from Sriharikota, a tiny barrier island in southeastern India. These include 88 from San Francisco-based Planet Labs Inc. as well as others built by companies and universities in Israel, Kazakhstan, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates.

At least one of these small satellites -- the UAE’s Nayif -- was meant to be launched on Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 rocket, which went up in flames in September. While Elon Musk has since returned to the skies, smaller and cheaper carriers are gaining popularity as companies hunger for more data and communication channels.

The fully integrated PSLV-C37 at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Feb. 13.

Source: Indian Space Research Organization/EPA

"It’s not just a record-setting mission, but further consolidation of the already well known technological prowess of the Indian space program,” said Susmita Mohanty, chief executive officer of Earth2Orbit, a Bangalore-based space start-up that helped Google Inc. launch a satellite on the PSLV last June. "The small-satellite launch market is growing at an alarming pace and this launch is a way to say that the PSLV is all set to respond to emerging-market demands.”

John Taylor, spokesman of Space Exploration Technologies, declined to comment.

Piracy, Microgravity

The 104 satellites will be used to map the Earth, track ships to monitor illegal fishing and piracy, as well as conduct microgravity experiments without making an expensive trip out to the International Space Station. The heaviest of them -- India’s CartoSat-2D -- weighs 714 kilograms and the lightest -- the Nayif -- just 1.1 kilograms.

Russia’s Dnepr mission held the record of 33 satellites launched in 2014, trailed by NASA’s 29 the year before. India put 20 in orbit in 2016, until now its biggest ever single launch. There were 208 satellites launched in 2014, almost double the amount the year before.

Very small satellites are a niche enterprise, so while flight arranging outfits will book a SpaceX rocket for an intermediary carrier vehicle, SpaceX won’t deal directly with nanosat operators, said David Todd, head of space content at UK-based Seradata Ltd. However financing for small satellites is being significantly boosted by venture capital-funded start-ups and ISRO’s rivals -- such as Virgin Galactic Ltd.’s LauncherOne and Rocket Lab’s Electron -- carry much smaller payloads of about 20 nanosatellites, he said.

The Dominant Destination for Low-Cost Launches

Special Report: Asia's Space Race

"Multi-launches of nanosats might be a way in to the U.S. launch market for ISRO/Antrix," Todd said, referring to the commercial unit of India’s space agency that has faced U.S. sanctions on allegations its state-ownership gives it unfair advantages. "Other competitors are arriving, so India needs to grab market share during the current market window."

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