tech2 News StaffFeb 13, 2017 15:49:04 IST
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
- Isro aims for a World record, to launch 83 satellites on a single rocket
- ISRO to launch world record 100 satellites in the PSLV-C37 mission scheduled for February
- Launching 103 satellites is not about setting a record, but to maximise capability, says ISRO chief
- Isro adds another passenger to the PSLV-C37 mission, 104 satellite launch rescheduled to mid February
- Isro plans to involve Indian industries to increase satellite launch capacity
- Isro’s mid-February PSLV-C37 launch of 104 satellites to have 88 satellites from Planet Labs
- Isro chief AS Kiran Kumar outlines the various uses of Indian satellites to students
- Isro’s PSLV-C37 launch scheduled for 15 February at 9:00 AM, here are the confirmed details
- Isro is going to break these previous satellite launch records with the PSLV-C37 mission
- Isro to recover half the cost of record breaking PSLV-C37 launch from foreign customers
- Isro PSLV-C37 record breaking mission run up: A history of rockets and launch vehicles in India
- Isro PSLV-C37 mission: The US private sector is threatened by cheap Indian spaceflight
- Isro has plans to go to Venus and visit Mars again in the future, along with 104 satellites launch on 15 Feb
- Isro’s record breaking PSLV-C37 mission: These are the 104 satellites on board
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