PARIS — India’s PSLV rocket launched 28 non-Indian satellites between 2013 and 2015, generating 80.6 million euros ($101 million) in commercial launch fees, mainly on the strength of three missions carrying foreign satellites as the main payloads, the Indian prime minister’s office said.
In a March 3 response to parliamentary questions, Jitendra Singh, a minister of state in the prime minister’s office whose responsibilities include India’s Department of Space, listed the 28 satellites and the revenue generated from their launches.
Antrix Corporation Ltd., the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization, negotiates commercial launch agreements on behalf of the Indian government.
Most of the satellites were small, with a launch mass ranging from a few kilograms to around 100 kilograms. These were launched as secondary payloads riding alongside an Indian satellite that financed most of the launch cost.
But three launches were dedicated commercial launches in which non-Indian satellites were the only payloads.
This was the case in June 2014, when Europe’s Airbus Defence and Space launched its 714-kilogram Spot 7 optical Earth observation satellite into a polar low Earth orbit. Airbus paid 17.5 million euros for the launch, Singh said in his written response to parliamentary questions.
It was not immediately clear why Singh listed prices in euros rather than the more customary U.S. dollars.
The four secondary payloads launched with Spot 7 were smaller satellites owned by customers in Germany, Canada and Singapore, which paid a combined 690,000 euros for the launch.
That would put the total launch fee for this mission at 18.19 million euros.
PSLV’s importance as a launch option for non-Indian customers has grown in recent years with the huge increase in the number of small satellites built for commercial businesses.
Several of these businesses are in the United States, whose current government policy of prohibiting U.S. commercial satellite launches on Indian rockets has come under pressure.
Owners of small satellites say that with the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket, a converted ballistic missile, being phased out by the Russian government – and with Dnepr’s near-term schedule unclear – the PSLV is among the most reliable, cost-effective rockets available to them.
Since a partial failure in 1997, the PSLV has posted a record of 31 consecutive launch successes.
The U.S. Trade Representative’s office has issued waivers to several U.S. companies, granting licenses to export their satellites to India for launch on the PSLV. The USTR is now reviewing whether the ban, which followed India’s refusal to commit to U.S.-approved commercial prices, should be lifted altogether.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, following the advice of its Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), wants the ban to remain in place to protect U.S. launch-service providers.
A second all-foreign PSLV launch occurred in July 2015, when British small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) launched its three DMC-3 optical Earth observation satellites.
The satellites remain SSTL property, but their imaging capacity has been fully leased, for seven years, by a Chinese company starting a commercial geospatial imagery business.
In addition to the three 447-kilogram DMC satellites, the July 2015 PSLV mission carried two smaller satellites, the 91-kilogram CBNT-1 technology demonstrator for SSTL, and the 7-kilogram Deorbitsail for the University of Surrey.
The total launch fee was 28 million euros, according to Singh.
In September 2015, Spire Global of San Francisco became the first commercial U.S. company to use the PSLV, launching four Lemur maritime-surveillance satellites, each weighing 4 kilograms. The launch carried satellites for Indonesia and Canada as well. The main payload was India’s 1,650-kilogram Astrosat astronomy satellite.
In December 2015, different Singaporean interests purchased an entire PSLV launch for 26 million euros. The biggest of the six satellites, the 400-kilogram TeLEOS-1, was placed into an unusual 550-kilometer equatorial orbit where it will conduct commercial Earth observation.
The Indian government data given to parliament provides useful commercial price data as small satellite owners, and operators of not-so-small Earth observation satellites, review their available options. The U.S. government ban on exporting satellites or satellite components to China remains firmly in effect, with no waivers being granted.
Europe’s Vega small-satellite launcher is being developed by the 22-nation European Space Agency to capture some of the business now going to PSLV. It remains to be seen how much margin Evry, France-based Arianespace, the commercial launch provider, will have in pricing Vega launches.
The Google-owned Terra Bella of Mountain View, California, formerly named Skybox Imaging, has purchased launches this year aboard both Vega and the PSLV, in both cases as secondary passengers.
Also unclear is whether the Indian Space Research Organization will increase its launch cadence to capture a greater commercial market share. The PSLV conducted 10 launches in the three years ending Dec. 31, 2015.
In May 2015, the Indian government’s Union Cabinet announced it had budgeted 30.9 billion Indian rupees, or $466 million at current exchange rates, to build and launch 15 PSLV rockets between 2017 and 2020, suggesting no increase in launch rate.
The cabinet said the figure, which averages $31 million per launch, includes the rockets’ production costs, plus the cost of program management and the 15 launch campaigns.
As is the case for the upgraded Indian GSLV, or Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle, the PSLV’s main mission is to carry Indian domestic satellites.
Singh said that between 2013 and 2015, Indian rockets launched 13 domestic satellites with a total mass of about 24,000 kilograms. During the same period, these rockets launched 28 non-Indian satellites, from nine nations, with a total mass of just 3,207 kilograms.