INDIA cemented its place as a global player in the private space market after successfully placing a record 104 satellites from a single rocket into orbit last Wednesday (15).
In the latest triumph for the country’s famously frugal space programme, the rocket took off at 9:28am (0358 GMT) and cruised at a speed of 27,000km (16,777 miles) per hour, ejecting all the 104 satellites into orbit in around 30 minutes, according to India’s Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Celebrations erupted among scientists at the southern spaceport of Sriharikota as the head of ISRO announced that all the satellites had been ejected as planned.
Three satellites belonged to India, while the rest were from other countries, including Israel, Kazakhstan, Switzerland and 96 from the US, as the south Asian nation seeks a bigger share of the $300 billion (£241bn) global space industry.
“This remarkable feat by ISRO is yet another proud moment for our space scientific community and the nation,” prime minister Narendra Modi said, adding: “India salutes our scientists.”
“They have hit a century in space technology,” Modi said later at an election rally in Uttar Pradesh state in north India.
This was the 39th successful mission for the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), known as India’s space workhorse.
The rocket’s main cargo was a 714 kg (1,574 lbs) Cartosat2 series satellite for earth observation. The remaining 103 smaller “nano satellites” weighed a combined 664 kg. The smallest weighed only 1.1 kg.
“My hearty congratulations to the ISRO team for this success,” the agency’s director Kiran Kumar told those gathered in an observatory to track the progress of the PSLV.
Scientists sat transfixed as they watched the progress of the rocket on monitors until the last payload was ejected.
“This is a great moment for each and everyone of us. Today we have created history,” said project director B Jayakumar.
The business of putting commercial satellites into space for a fee is growing as telephone, internet and other companies, as well as countries, seek greater and more high-tech communications.
The launch means India now holds the record for launching the most satellites in one go, surpassing Russia which launched 39 satellites in a single mission in June 2014.
And it is another feather in the cap for ISRO which sent an unmanned rocket to orbit Mars in 2013 at a cost of just $73 million (£59m), compared with NASA’s Maven Mars mission which had a $671m (£538m) price tag.
Of the satellites launched, 77 have started communicating with the earth stations, Kiran Kumar said.
“Through PSLV, we are trying to capture a particular segment of (space launch market),” he told reporters after the launch.
He said the mission was about “maximising ISRO’s returns and improving its capabilities”.
ISRO’s low prices attracted international customers to launch 75 satellites last year from Sriharikota in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
The chairman and managing director of ISRO’s commercial arm, Antrix Corporation Ltd, S Rakesh, said the agency has secured orders ranging between Rs 5bn (£60m) and Rs 6bn (£71m) from international customers.
Last week’s launch included India’s Cartosat2 Series satellite, a remote sensing spacecraft with a five-year lifespan. It will send images to be used for monitoring the country’s road networks, water distribution and creating land use maps, among others, ISRO said.
Eighty eight satellites are from Planet Inc, a San Franciscobased earth imagery company.
Former ISRO chairman and noted space scientist G Madhavan Nair added that the agency’s record launch was achieved by proven technology, and the rocket has the capability to launch 400 nano spacecraft.
“This is no new technology. We (ISRO) started with 10 satellites (on board a single rocket), then went to 18 or something, then it was 35. Now it’s 100. If you make a 34kg satellite, it (PSLV) can take 300 to 400 satellites at a time,” Nair said.
Mathieu J Weiss, a liaison officer for France’s CNES national space agency who is currently in India, said ISRO had pulled off a major feat.
“It’s a great technical challenge to launch so many satellites at once into orbit in the right trajectory so they don’t make contact with each other,” he said.
Weiss said India had become a major player in the space race by making itself so competitive with its low costs and by working with private companies that are space specialists.
“India has become a space power in its own right in recent years,” he added.
Last June, India set a national record after it successfully launched a rocket carrying 20 satellites, including 13 from the US.
The 50-year-old space agency plans to send four more rockets into space later this year ahead of its second lunar mission Chandrayaan2, slated for 2018.
ISRO is also mulling the idea of missions to Jupiter and Venus.
So far, the country’s space agency has launched 226 satellites, including 179 belonging to foreign countries.