It’s the season of firsts and records for Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). As its workhorse the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) took off Sriharikota on Wednesday morning, it was almost like a goods wagon, couriering; apart from its primary luggage, the 727.5 kg Cartosat 2 series satellite, it took a record breaking 19 other satellites to orbit, the largest number it ever has. Usually Isro takes around six satellites with every flight, though in 2008, it had taken a payload of ten satellites.
The 727.5 kg cartosat is part of a constellation to help build up the country’s cartographic data for developing Land Information Systems (LIS) and Geographical Information Systems (GIS). Of the 19 co-passenger satellites, Sathyabamasat (1.5 kg) and Swayam (Ikg) are academic satellites built with the inputs from students of Sathyabama University, Chennai and College of Engineering, Pune, respectively.
The other 17 were international customer satellites from Canada (2), Germany (1), Indonesia (1) and the United States (13). Of the 113 satellites PSLVs have launched so far, 74 have been for international customers and Sriharikota is fast emerging as the international spaceport of choice when it comes to launching smaller satellites. The reliability of the launch vehicle apart (this was the 35th consecutively successful PSLV flight), the cheaper cost of launches is also an attraction.
Although the combined weight of the satellites launched this time, 1,288 kg, is rather huge, by previous standards, the PSLV has a limitation and cannot launch much bigger satellites. Isro officials say that once the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) joins the fleet, Isro’s launches will not just get bigger, but much busier. This is an impressive feat for a country whose space programme is relatively younger and where budgets are not as lavish.
For Isro, 2016 has turned out to be a year of successes. Just a few weeks earlier, the space agency successfully tested the re-entry in a scaled down model of an indigenously developed reusable launch vehicle. The launch was a technological test, and its success marks the beginning of developing a new fleet of vehicles that can be reused several times, thus, further lowering flight costs. Soon after that flight, Isro launched its seventh and final navigation satellite, thus completing the constellation of Navic, India’s own positioning and navigational system. With this, India is well on its way to developing a complement, if not substitute, to the American owned Global Positioning System (GPS). Private developers say that data will help develop apps and systems for regional projects and could be of great use for traffic management and the railways.
India’s ambitions are growing higher with every launch. While the focus of the country’s space mission is to come up with technology and aids for the country’s development, wanderlust has hit the scientists at the space mission of late. Chandrayaan 2 is being developed for a projected launch to the moon by 2018, while scientists are also developing systems for a human space flight, whenever that programme gets the green signal. The re entry of the test crew module into the atmosphere during a test flight in 2014 marked an important milestone in the development of the human space flight programme.