Isro PSLV-C37 mission: The US private sector is threatened by cheap Indian spaceflight

There is a US policy in place since 2005 preventing US satellites from being launched on Indian launch vehicles.

Please follow the live blog for the launch of ISRO Satellite PSLV-C37.

The Isro PSLV-C37 mission is scheduled for 9:00 AM on 15 February 2017. On board are 88 American satellites from Planet Labs, known as Flock-3p. The mission will break records as Isro plans to deploy 104 satellites on a single mission, a world record, as well as the most satellites of a single constellation.

The US domestic sector is threatened by the Isro launches, and there is, in fact, a US policy in place preventing US satellites from being launched on Indian launch vehicles.

 Isro PSLV-C37 mission: The US private sector is threatened by cheap Indian spaceflight

A Dove satellite being launched from the ISS. The PSLV-C37 will put into orbit 88 of these.

Planet Labs has launched satellites on Isro missions previously as well. To be able to do this, Planet has to get a waiver for allowing the use of Isro rockets, a process made easier by working through intermediaries such as the Netherlands based Innovative Services In Space (ISIS). One of the specialisations of the agency is finding launch vehicles that small satellites can piggyback on.

In a meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee of the United States Federal Aviation Administration in 2015, concerns were raised over Antrix having an unfair advantage over domestic private sector competition in the United States, as Antrix is an Indian Governmental entity.

Antrix (pronounced as "antariksh") is the commercial wing of Isro, an organisation that promotes and commercially markets Isro products and services. Antrix is wholly owned by the Government of India. The presentation ended with the committee agreeing to support a bill titled "U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act".


A SpaceX Falcon 9 re-usable stage landed successfully on a drone ship in the middle of the ocean. Image: SpaceX.

Isro launches are incredibly cheap. SpaceX uses cutting edge technologies and reuses rockets by landing them on barges in the middle of the ocean as they cannot carry enough fuel to return to the launchpad. But still, Isro launches cost about a third of what a SpaceX launch costs. The Indian Government allegedly subsidises the launches. Isro scientists and engineers are paid one eighth the salaries compared to people in similar positions in the US and Europe. The lower salaries itself leads some to believe that Isro has an advantage in the cost of producing and launching satellites.

In 2016, the US committee on Science, Space and Technology sent letters to four senior US officials in charge of policy decisions, outlining the problems with US companies using Indian satellite launch services. The letter pointed out the two-sided nature of US agencies controlling the launch of commercial satellites.

On one hand, a policy is in place since 2005 discouraging the use of Indian launch vehicles, whereas on the other hand, agencies frequently give waivers to allow for US companies to use Indian satellite launch vehicles. The letters demanded an explanation and clarification of the issue from the agencies.

PSLV C34. has on board 12 US satellites. Image: Isro

PSLV C34 had 12 US satellites on board. Image: Isro

The Committee on Science, Space and Technology is concerned that Indian satellite launches do not reflect the true costs of launching these satellites. The US launch services are at a disadvantage because they are pushed out of competition for the microsatellite and nanosatellite class of payloads.

Essentially, the committee found that India was "dumping" the launch vehicles in the commercial market to the detriment of US firms. The committee asked the US congress to encourage US firms that offered legitimate prices for launch services. The concerns were presented in a hearing on "The Commercial Space Launch Industry: Small Satellite Opportunities and Challenges" in April 2016.

Isro is a threat to the US space launching capabilities available from both, the US Government and private industries. However, US industries make a steady stream of satellites, but they do not have enough launch vehicles to place all of them to orbit.

The policy of not using Isro launches would be detrimental to the US companies with immediate launch needs. Which is why the The Committee on Science, Space and Technology agrees that waivers on a case by case basis are needed for allowing US satellites to be launched on Indian PSLV or GSLV rockets. The good times for Isro will stop as soon as the US launch industry further matures and once the next generation of US launch vehicles in development can serve the needs of US satellite launches.


From left to right, the Falcon Heavy, the New Glenn 2 Stage variant, and the Vulcan. The launch vehicles are not to scale.

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy is in development, with a first launch expected in July 2017. Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos plans to make the New Glenn rocket available for commercial launches in a few years. New Glenn also has re-usable stages, similar to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. United Launch Alliance is also expected to debut the Vulcan rockets in the next few years, and may share engines with the New Glenn rockets. Nasa is also in the process of building it's most powerful rocket yet, the Space Launch System.

Isro has some stiff competition ahead, but for now, it is in good position for commercial satellite launches. Over half of the cost of the PSLV-C37 mission is expected to be recovered from the foreign satellites on board.


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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