PARIS—India’s PSLV rocket on June 22 delivered the Indian Cartosat-2C high-resolution optical Earth observation into a 507-kilometer polar low Earth orbit along with 19 smaller satellites, including 13 U.S. commercial spacecraft.
Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) officials said after the launch that Cartosat-2C was in good health and that the 19 co-passengers had been placed into their intended orbits. They said the vehicle achieved a high injection accuracy of 507 kilometers for Cartosat-2C. The target was 505 kilometers.
ISRO officials saluted the nation’s growing launch-service competence as it progresses toward full autonomy in space launch and enhances its status as a reliable supplier for small satellite owners the world over.
They called on India’s space industry to take a larger role in PSLV manufacturing and to accelerate its production rhythm to permit the PSLV to launch as many as eight or more times per year. The current maximum is six per year.
The June 22 launch was the fourth in 2016 for the PSLV, equaling the record set in 2015.
The mission featured a demonstration of the PSLV rocket’s upper stage to conduct multiple stop-and-reignite maneuvers, a feature needed to place satellites into different orbits on a single launch. ISRO has said the record 20-satellite payload likely will be surpassed.
U.S. government policy and its waivers
The PSLV-C34 was the vehicle’s second carrying commercial U.S. payloads after San Francisco-based Spire Global’s four Lemur maritime surveillance satellites were launched in September 2015. Twelve 4.7-kilogram Dove Earth observation satellites for Planet of San Francisco, formerly named Planet Labs, were on board, as was the 110-kilogram SkySat Gen2-1 Earth observation satellite, owned by Google’s Terra Bella of Mountain View, California.
The launch is the latest example of the often-diverging interests of U.S. satellite owners and U.S. rocket builders and not the last. PlanetiQ of Boulder, Colorado, has booked a PSLV launch scheduled for late this year.
Much of the surging commercial small-satellite industry operates under a business model that makes low-cost launch a necessity. Companies developing rockets to accommodate this market do not want to compete with India’s low-wage economy.
The current state of U.S. policy leans toward the rocket builders’ position, with a prohibition on the launch of commercial satellites from India. Waivers to the ban were granted to Spire Global of San Francisco and now to Planet and Terra Bella. The U.S. Trade Representative is reviewing whether the policy – which seeks to induce India to accept U.S.-level launch prices in return for access to the U.S. commercial market – should be revised or scrapped altogether.
Spaceflight of Seattle, Washington, which has secured launch slots for previous Planet spacecraft, negotiated the PSLV contract.
“Coupling [Planet’s Dove satellites] with our integrated launch services and the PSLV rocket, which continues to be one of the most routine and reliable avenues for us to launch our customers’ satellites, makes it easier and more affordable for organizations like Planet to execute their space missions,” Spaceflight President Curt Blake said in a post-launch statement.
Spaceflight’s launch brokerage history suggests the obstacle course that small satellite owners must traverse to get to orbit. Spaceflight has booked launches on the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket, whose recent schedule reliability has been tarnished and whose future is in doubt; and aboard Houston, Texas-based NanoRacks’ dispensers operated from the Japanese module of the International Space Station.
For its next launch, Spaceflight has arranged for 89 small satellites to be fitted onto a Spaceflight Sherpa carrier, whose launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, along with Taiwan’s Formosat-5 spacecraft, has been repeatedly delayed and is now scheduled for sometime late this year.
The 89 satellites on the Sherpa mission is part of a backlog of 150 satellites scheduled for Spaceflight-managed launches.
The U.S. government’s effort to accommodate both a flourishing small-satellite industry and a long-struggling small-satellite launch sector was not the only evidence of launcher politics in the PSLV-C34 launch.
Among the co-passengers were two Canadian satellites, including the 85-kilogram M3MSat, financed by Canadian civil and military authorities and intended for use by a commercial company, exactEarth Ltd., for maritime tracking. The Canadian government had refused to allow the satellite’s launch on a Russian Soyuz rocket in May 2014 in protest against Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Canada’s population includes a large number of Ukrainians.
The other Canadian satellite on the PSLV-C34 launch is the 25.5-kilogram GHGSat-D, built by the University of Toronto’s Space Flight Laboratory to study atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane.
The German Aerospace Center, DLR, launched its 130-kilogram BIROS, or Berlin Infrared Optical System, satellite, designed to monitor fires.
The 120-kilogram LAPAN-A3, owned by Indonesia’s National Institute of Aeronautics and Space, LAPAN, has an Earth observation payload and, like M3MSat, an Automatic Identification System sensor for maritime traffic monitoring.
Two small Indian university satellites, the 1.5-kilogram Sathyabamasat and the 1-kilogram Swayam satellite, will study greenhouse gases and transfer amateur-radio messages, respectively.
The 727.5-kilogram Cartosat-2C is the third Cartosat-2 generation satellite into orbit, starting with Cartosat-2A in 2005. Cartosat-2A had a ground resolution as sharp as 85 centimeters, with a swath width of 9.6 kilometers, from its 600-kilometer orbit. Cartosat-2C, orbiting at around 505 kilometers, will have an image resolution as sharp as 65 centimeters when looking straight down.