Isro's launch of the PSLV-C37 mission with 104 satellites is subsidised by the Government

The Isro PSLV launches are subsidised by the Indian Government, with investments in research and development.

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

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle spaceflights by Isro are among the cheapest possible ways of putting satellites into orbit. Isro is the space agency under the Department of Space that is mostly in charge of the Indian Space program, including development of technology, transfer of the technology to industries, and launching satellites for Indian use. Antrix is the commercial wing of Isro, and is a company wholly owned by the Government of India.

 Isros launch of the PSLV-C37 mission with 104 satellites is subsidised by the Government

Antrix employees providing ground support to the Mars orbiter Mission by Isro. Image: Antrix.

The launch of 104 satellites in a single mission started off as a far less ambitious effort that would still have set world records. Initially, there was a plan to launch 68 satellites in a single mission, some time in late 2016 itself. An increasing number of satellites were accommodated into the PSLV, with the number going up to 83, then 103, and finally 104. The launches were pushed back every time more satellites were added to the mission.

Finding space for smaller satellites in an existing and scheduled launch is known as "piggybacking". Companies such as Innovative Solutions In Space specialise in finding piggyback opportunities for microsatellites, nanosatellites and picosatellites. The "launch services" section prominently displays the Indian "workhorse" rocket, the PSLV. The US company Planet Labs was able to find space on the PSLV launch for a constellation of 88 Dove satellites, through the help of Innovative Solutions In Space. The PSLV mission with the CartoSat-2D on board would have been launched by India anyway, adding satellites is a way for Isro to bring down costs. More than half of the cost of the launch is expected to be recovered from the 101 foreign satellites on board.

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

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

For US companies, the economics of Indian spaceflight is a threat. They allege that India is distorting the market by heavily subsidising the launches. There is even a policy in place that prevents private US companies from using the PSLV, and every time a company does this, it has to get a waiver. During a hearing in April last year in the US, on challenges and opportunities of small satellites in the commercial launch industry, Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) gave testimony.

"CSF opposes efforts to facilitate a government-subsidised foreign launch, company—in this case, Isro—to compete with US companies. Such a policy runs counter to many national priories and undermines the work and investment that has been made by government and industry to ensure the health of the US space launch industrial base. At the same time, we have to be cautious not to squeeze out the US satellite manufacturers and operators that have immediate launch needs which cannot yet be served by the aforementioned US launch vehicles that are still in development." reads the testimony.

A Dove satellite being launched from the ISS. The PSLV-C37 has 88 of these.

A Dove satellite being launched from the ISS. 88 of these will piggyback on the PSLV-C37.

In the 1990s itself, the US evaluated if subsidised US governmental launches should be allowed to compete with launches from the private sector. The US found that the subsidised Space Shuttle launches were unviable. Since 1994 there has been a policy in place to encourage private US space flight, with a national policy put in place that required that US agencies purchase launch services from private US companies for their requirements.

Amidst increasing US co-operation with India on the space programs of the two countries, the private US space industry raised concerns about the cheap Indian spaceflights. lliot Holokauahi Pulham, CEO of Space Foundation had said, "I think the concern about using Indian boosters is not so much the transfer of sensitive technology to a nation that is a fellow democracy, but rather whether the Indian launches are subsidised by the government to a degree that other market actors would be priced out of the market."

SpaceX has kept costs low with partially re-usable launch vehicles. Image: AP

SpaceX has kept costs low with partially re-usable launch vehicles. Image: AP

"Currently, the Indian launch vehicle PSLV has a sweet spot and has the capability of launching some of these satellites right now in a timely manner. We don’t want to see United States launches going overseas by any means, whether it’s to India, Russia or whomever else. But right now, from the satellite, you know, producers and manufacturers, they need to get their assets up in the sky as quick as possible," Stallmer said.

A PSLV launch costs a fraction of what other comparable rocket launches cost. The Falcon 9 by SpaceX manages to keep costs low by re-using some parts of the launch vehicle. The Proton rocket from Ukraine, the HII-A from Jaxa, the Long March by CSNA and the Atlas V by United Launch Alliance all cost many times the cost of an Indian PSLV spaceflight. Governments providing subsidies to spaceflight to remain competitive, and is nothing new. Russia, China and Europe are known to offer subsidies to rocket launches. Arianespace, the company that manages Ariane-5 launches, requested help from the ESA in 2014 after facing stiff competition from SpaceX.


On concerns by certain sections in the US about Isro launches as it is being subsidised by the government, Antrix CMD Rakesh Sasibhushan said, "Our competitiveness will give answer for this. All launches are subsidised, it is not that we are subsidising or somebody else is subsidising. These government subsidies in the form of R&D investment comes in all launch programmes, now some private industries have come up who have started questioning, let them question," he said.

"We have our own programme, we are competing with the world, we will try to be more competitive and probably that will provide the answer," he added. Rakesh said small satellites are going to become a large market and it can be exploited by Indian Industry. "Isro can play a technology providers role there. We would like to get this across to as many industries as possible to see that tomorrow the country is benefited by this."

20 Spacecraft in the PSLV c34. Image: Isro

20 Spacecraft in the PSLV c34. Image: Isro

Isro scientists and engineers are paid about an eighth of the salaries paid to people in similar positions in the Europe and the United States. Isro is merely adding nanosatellites to an existing and planned launch schedule, saving costs by increasing the number of "piggybacking" satellites.

Antrix CMD has said that the launches are subsidised by the Indian Government, with investments in research and development that will benefit private industries in India as well. All of these factors allows the Indian space program to be incredibly competitive in the worldwide market, and by all indications, Isro will only become even more competitive.

With inputs from PTI


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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