India’s space agency on Wednesday launched a record 104 satellites from a single rocket as it crossed another milestone in its low-cost space-exploration program.
The satellites from seven countries were carried by the Indian Space Research Organization’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle on its 38th consecutive successful flight.
The mission reinforces India’s emerging reputation as a reliable and cost-effective option for launching satellites. In 2014, ISRO put a satellite into the orbit of Mars, becoming the first Asian country to reach the red planet at fraction of the cost of a similar launch in U.S. and Europe.
ISRO has now put 226 satellites into orbit, including 180 from foreign nations. The global space industry was estimated to be worth $323 billion in 2015, the latest year for which data are available, according to the Space Foundation, a U.S.-based research group. Commercial space business comprised as much as 76% of the industry.
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow in space-security studies at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank, said the launch was a “showcase of India’s growing capabilities.”
“India’s space program has come a long way,” she said.
Ms. Rajagopalan said the trend for sending more small satellites–instead of fewer large ones–will benefit ISRO due to the cost advantages it offers over its American and European competitors. The Space Foundation said nano satellites comprised 48% of launches in 2015
Wednesday’s feat eclipses the record set by Russia in 2014 when it launched 37 satellites in a single mission. A National Aeronautics and Space Administration rocket carried 29 satellites in 2013.
The PSLV rocket blasted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Center at Sriharikota in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh at 9.28 a.m. Wednesday local time (10.58 p.m. Tuesday ET).
It first released its main cargo, ISRO’s 714 kilogram Cartosat-2 series satellite, which will be used for earth observation. It then released two smaller ISRO satellites, followed by the remaining 101 nano satellites, one each from Israel, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, and 96 from the U.S. As many as 88 of the nano satellites belonged to U.S.-based company Planet Inc.
ISRO’s two smaller satellites are carrying equipment for conducting various experiments.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his congratulations. “This remarkable feat by @isro is yet another proud moment for our space scientific community and the nation. India salutes our scientists,” the message said.
Mission Director B. Jayakumar said it was a challenge to “find real estate (on the PSLV rocket) to accommodate all the satellites.” He said a “unique separation sequence” was designed due to the large number of satellites.
ISRO said the satellites went into orbit 506 kilometers from earth, inclined at an angle of 97.46 degrees to the equator–very close to the intended orbit–after a flight of nearly 17 minutes. In the subsequent 12 minutes, all 104 satellites were successfully separated from the rocket in sequence, it said.
After separation, the two solar panels of ISRO’s Cartosat-2 series satellite were deployed and the space agency’s command center in Bangalore took control. In the coming days, the satellite will begin to provide start sending back black and white, and color pictures, ISRO said.
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