India’s in orbit over record launch of 104 satellites

Sky’s the limit: Indians watch the launch of a record 104 satellites from a single rocket at Sriharikota. Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the feat as ‘hitting a century in space technology’. Photo: Arun Sankar/AFP

Sky’s the limit: Indians watch the launch of a record 104 satellites from a single rocket at Sriharikota. Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the feat as ‘hitting a century in space technology’. Photo: Arun Sankar/AFP

India successfully put a record 104 satellites from a single rocket into orbit on Wednesday in the latest triumph for its famously frugal space programme.

Celebrations erupted among scientists at the southern spaceport of Sriharikota as the head of India’s Space Research Organisation (Isro) announced all the satellites had been ejected as planned.

“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 Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the scientists for achieving the feat, which smashes a record previously held by Russia.

“They have hit a century in space technology,” Modi said at an election rally in northern Uttar Pradesh state.

The rocket took off at 9.28am and cruised at a speed of 27 000km/h, ejecting all 104 satellites into orbit in about 30 minutes, according to Isro.

The rocket’s main cargo was a 714kg satellite for Earth observation but it was also loaded with 103 smaller “nano satellites”, weighing a combined 664kg. The smallest weighed only 1.1kg.

Most of the nano satellites are from other countries, including Israel, Kazakhstan and Switzerland. The United States sent 96 satellites, 84 of them are from Planet Inc — a San Francisco-based Earth imagery company — which weigh 4.5kg each.  Only three satellites are India’s.

Scientists sat transfixed as they watched the progress of the rocket on monitors until the last payload was ejected, and then began celebrating.  This was PSLV’s 39th successful mission.

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, compared with Nasa’s Maven Mars mission, which had a $671-million price tag.

Isro is also considering missions to Jupiter and Venus.

The business of putting commercial satellites into space for a fee is growing as companies and countries seek greater and more high-tech communications.

India has carved out a reputation as a reliable low-cost option, relying in part on its famed skill of jugaad — creating a cheap alternative solution.

Experts say much of its credibility stems from India’s successful launch of the Mars orbiter, which gave it an edge over its rivals in the space race.

“India is proving to be a very viable option because of the cost and the reliability factor,” said Ajay Lele, a senior fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

“India has been doing these launches successfully and has established itself as a very reliable player.”

Mathieu 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 on the right trajectory so that they don’t make contact with each other,” he said.

Weiss added that India had become a major player in the space race by making itself so competitive with its low costs and by working with private space specialists. “India has become a space power in its own right in recent years.”

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, Chandrayaan-2, slated for 2018.

Modi, who has often hailed India’s budget space technology, quipped in 2014 that a rocket that launched four foreign satellites into orbit had cost less to make than the Hollywood film Gravity. — AFP

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