THE LAUNCH OF 104 satellites in one go by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is a technical accomplishment of a high order. It also marks the arrival of ISRO as a serious competitor in the $3-4 billion global space launch market.
What ISRO undertook on February 15th required mastering a complex set of technologies. For one, you need a powerful rocket to bear a payload of around 1,400 kg that allows the placement of so many satellites in the desired orbit. After decades of trial and error, ISRO finally has such a vehicle: the Polar Space Launch Vehicle or PSLV. For another, sequencing the release of satellites—with 90 belonging to a single client—the American firm Planet Labs—requires control and manoeuvrability. For this, ISRO developed adapters known as quadrapacks, each of which contain three to four satellites. Within hours of the PSLV’s launch, all of this was carried out flawlessly.
This demonstrates India’s technical prowess, but more importantly, it also shows that ISRO can launch satellites cheaply. What is charged of individual clients is, of course, confidential. But what is not secret is the fact that these costs are orders of magnitude below what the European Space Agency or American services charge. India has a niche market almost ready for it when it comes to small and ‘nano’ satellites that weigh 10-200 kg. This is apart from the fact that India can launch much bigger satellites that are used for remote sensing, telecommunications and weather forecasting. Again, these launches are also dirt cheap as compared to what its Western rivals offer. There is no need to say ‘bigger and better’ in this market: even if ISRO manages to get hold of a sizeable chunk of the small satellite market, it can be a commercial money spinner merely by garnering a larger number of deals. Its market advantage lies in price-competitiveness and not the size of its launch offerings.
Perhaps this is one reason that this particular launch has been written about so enviously—and even negatively—in the Western press. One newspaper, habitual in its criticism of India, dubbed these satellites as ‘doves’ to underplay the nature of the Indian achievement. A simple response would be: in that case, why do so many Western firms want ISRO to launch satellites for them? It’s money. That’s where the fear and the envy stem from.