What should everyone know about the ISRO’s PSLV-C37 mission carrying 104 satellites?

What should everyone know about the ISRO's PSLV-C37 mission carrying 104 satellites? by Shrish Singh Thakur

Answer by Shrish Singh Thakur:

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to set a world record by launching 104 satellites on board a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) flight on 15 February. It will be the thirty ninth flight of the PSLV, and its sixteenth flight in the XL configuration, where additional motors are strapped onto the rocket. The main payload is the Indian earth observation satellite, CartoSat-2D. The other 103 satellites are nano-satellites from India, Israel, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United States. The 101 foreign satellites are being launched as part of a commercial agreement between Isro and its commercial arm, Antrix.

In the last few years there has been a proliferation of nano-satellites, micro-satellites and pico-satellites. 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 nano-satellites. The ISRO PSLV-C37 launch has 88 Nano-Satellites from Planet Labs, part of a constellation of satellites that will observe the Earth every day.

Out of the 104 satellites on board, 103 are Nano-satellites. 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 nano-satellite standard, ISRO Nano Satellite (INS).

Why ISRO?

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.

Why “NOT” NASA or SpaceX?

Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO, provides launch services much cheaper than competition. The US based SpaceX and the French Arianespace or NASA 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 nano-satellites 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.

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 669.2 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.

Image: PSLV C37

What should everyone know about the ISRO's PSLV-C37 mission carrying 104 satellites?

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