India sets world record by launching 104 satellites

The 104 satellites, weighing 1,378kg in total, were launched at one go aboard the PSLV rocket yesterday in Sriharikota, India.
The 104 satellites, weighing 1,378kg in total, were launched at one go aboard the PSLV rocket yesterday in Sriharikota, India.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Successful launch boosts country's profile in global space industry worth billions

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has launched 104 satellites, including 88 from a US imaging company, at one go, setting a new world record and boosting its profile in the multibillion-dollar international space industry.

The 104 satellites, weighing 1,378kg in total, were launched yesterday aboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), an indigenous rocket dubbed "ISRO's workhorse". That broke the previous record of 37 satellites launched at one go by Russia in 2014.

Scientists, wearing white jackets with the abbreviation PSLV on the back, cheered in the control room as the satellites - one each from Israel, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates, and a total of 96 from the United States, as well as three from India - were sent into orbit, one after the other.

Satish Dhawan Space Centre director P. Kunhikrishnan said the launch was "inscribed in gold in the space history of India".

"The 104 satellites were very precisely injected into orbit, clearly reiterating ISRO's capability in handling complex missions," he said.

Congratulatory messages poured in from across the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it "another proud moment for our space scientific community and the nation", saying in a tweet: "India salutes our scientists."

The satellites include the 714kg Cartosat-2 series module, which will keep an eye on activities on India's borders with China and Pakistan.

All the others were nano satellites - small modules that weigh less than 10kg each - including 88 from US company Planet Labs, which provides satellite imagery to firms.

The company said the launch has given it the ability to "image all of Earth's land mass every day", and "was the largest satellite constellation ever to reach orbit".

Over five decades, India has built up a space programme that is now a serious competitor in the multibillion-dollar space market. Going by unofficial estimates, the cost of launches in India is 30 per cent to 40 per cent less than elsewhere.

The space agency has launched 226 satellites from 23 countries, including Singapore, earning millions of dollars over the past 17 years. Singapore's first locally built satellite was sent up in 2011, a satellite from Nanyang Technological University in 2014, and six Singapore satellites in December 2015.

Experts said the launch of 104 satellites - with most for foreign clients - was a boost for India's reputation, already buttressed by a successful mission to Mars.

"This launch is significant on two to three levels. It essentially allows other countries to look at the Indian space programme seriously after this successful mass mission that no one in the world has achieved. Thirty-seven to 104 is a quantum jump that puts India on a higher pedestal," said Professor Ajay Lele, a senior fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. "Everyone in the world will take note."

Scientists revealed that the project to send up a record number was full of challenges.

"We came up with a unique separation sequence that was designed by our team," said Mr B. Jayakumar, project director of the launch. "The first one was finding real estate for accommodating all the satellites in the payload department."

ISRO can handle satellites weighing up to only 2,000kg, but it is aiming to send a satellite weighing 10,000kg aboard the GSLV Mark 3, now being tested.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2017, with the headline 'India sets world record by launching 104 satellites'. Print Edition | Subscribe