Isro PSLV-C37 launch: How Antrix compares to other satellite launch services

Isro has a reliable and cheap launch vehicle to put into low earth orbit a large number of very small satellites.


For decades, the space race was all about building bigger rockets with increasing launch capacity. India is working on a Unified Launch Vehicle (ULV), which will eventually replace the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The ULV will have the capacity to launch 15,000 kg into low earth orbit (LEO). The United States is seeing a lot of activity around building the next generation of launch vehicles. Elon Musk owned SpaceX is developing the Falcon Heavy, and Jeff Bezos owned Blue Origin is working on a New Glenn rocket. Both launch vehicles have a capacity of launching around 50,000 kg into orbit.

Isro PSLV-C37 launch: How Antrix compares to other satellite launch services

The SpaceX ITS launch vehicle.

Nasa is working on the Space Launch System (SLS), that can potentially put into low earth orbit as much as 100,000 kg in a single launch. Both Russia and China are developing rockets of the same class. SpaceX is working on a launch vehicle for its Interplanetary Transport System with a launch capacity of 500,000 kg.

However, in the last few years there has been a proliferation of nanosatellites, microsatellites and picosatellites. These small satellites are cheap to make and easily configurable. Private companies, educational institutions and space agencies around the world are finding newer and more innovative uses for nanosatellites. The Isro PSLV-C37 launch has 88 nanosatellites from Planet Labs, part of a constellation of satellites that will observe the Earth every day.

A CubeSat. Image: Nasa.

A CubeSat. Image: Nasa.

Out of the 104 satellites on board, 103 satellites are nanosatellites. Many are based on the CubeSat standard. The platform was originally developed by Universities in the United States so that students could easily get access to space. The student satellites from Israel's Ben Gurion University and Kazakhstan's Al-Farabi Kazakh National University and UAE's American University of Sharjah (AUS) are all based on the CubeSat standard. The platform has seen widespread adoption by private companies as well, with the 8 Lemur satellites on board being based on the CubeSat standard. Isro is launching two satellites in its own nanosatellite standard, Isro Nano Satellite (INS). The CubeSats can be easily customised, and has a number of sub-systems that are readily available.

The PSLV does not have the capacity to launch very heavy payloads, but the relatively small rocket is exactly what the world needs right now. Private companies around the world are racing to build smaller rockets to launch the smaller satellites. Space agencies are building racks to house a number of satellites in a single launch vehicle. Isro already has the capabilities of launching smaller satellites. The proliferation of nanosatellites is ideal for Isro launches. Isro can increase the number of satellites in each mission, by packing in an increasing number of satellites into each launch. The "work horse" rocket of the Indian space agency has a flawless record spanning over two decades, and has seen a spike in spaceflights in the XL configuration lately.

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From left to right, the Ariane-5 by Arianespace, the HII-A from Jaxa, the Falcon 9 by SpaceX, PSLV by Isro, the Long March by CSNA, The Atlas V by United Launch Alliance, and the Russian Proton rocket.

Antrix, the commercial arm of Isro, provides launch services much cheaper than competition. The US based SpaceX and the French Arianespace simply cannot compete with the prices that are offered by Isro. In fact, Isro provides satellite launch services at such a low cost, that the American private launch industry is threatened by Isro, and has lobbied for a policy that prevents American companies from using Indian launch vehicles such as the PSLV. However, as the nanosatellites keep getting made, and are more useful in space than on the ground, there are waivers given to companies on an individual basis, to allow them to use Isro launch vehicles.

Falcon 9 exploding. Image Credit: Reuters

Falcon 9 exploding in September 2016. Image: Reuters

Following failures, the regular launch missions by the Russian Proton rocket, and the SpaceX launch vehicle, Falcon 9 were both halted. The PSLV is reliable, and has failed entirely only on its maiden flight in 1993, and partially in a 1997 flight. A Falcon 9 launch costs $57 million (about Rs 381 crore). A Russian Proton launch costs $68 million (roughly Rs 455 crore). Launches of the Japanexe H-IIA, the Chinese Long March, European Ariane-5 and American Atlas V each cost about $100 million (around Rs 6,692 crore). An Isro PSLV launch by comparison, costs a paltry $15 million (roughly Rs 100 crore). Isro will recover about half of the cost of the PSLV-C37 spaceflight because of the number of foreign satellites on board.

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Increasing the number of satellites in a single launch is a way for Isro to stay competitive. The PSLV-C37 mission is more about using the available technology to its full extent, as against setting a world record.

Isro chief AS Kiran Kumar has said, "We are not looking at it as a record or anything. We are just trying to maximise our capability with each launch and trying to utilise that launch for the ability it has got and get the maximum in return."

ISRO chairman Alur Seelin Kiran Kumar. Image: ISRO.

ISRO chairman Alur Seelin Kiran Kumar. Image: ISRO.

Isro might not have the highest launch capacity as compared to other launch vehicles. However, the combination of the lowest prices and a track record with few failures, makes Isro one of the best options currently available for launching small satellites in low earth orbit.

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This story is a part of a series on the world record launch of 104 satellites on a single mission by Isro. The stories in the series are: 

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