PSLV launch
An Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle lifts off after a Jan. 11 launch carrying 31 satellites. Credit: ISRO

WASHINGTON — The successful launch of an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) Jan. 11 marked not just the return to flight of the rocket but also major achievements for several of the companies with payloads on board the vehicle.

The PSLV lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in India at 10:59 p.m. Eastern Jan. 11, carrying a Cartosat-2 remote sensing satellite and 30 secondary payloads. All the payloads were successfully deployed into two low Earth orbits within two hours of launch.

The launch was the first for the PSLV since an Aug. 31 launch failure, when the rocket’s payload fairing failed to separate and trapped its payload, a navigation satellite, inside. The Indian space agency ISRO has yet to publicly disclose the results of the investigation into that failure, but Indian media reported that explosive bolts designed to split the fairing into two halves failed to fire correctly.

The rocket carried a diverse array of secondary payloads, including the first satellites for some companies. Iceye, a Finnish company developing a constellation of small synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites, launched its first demonstration satellite on this mission. The 70-kilogram Iceye-X1 satellite is the first of three such proof-of-concept satellites the company plans to launch in 2018.

Iceye plans to develop a constellation of 18 smallsats that will provide SAR imagery, able to image any part of the Earth within a few hours. “Iceye has been committed to enabling better decision making for everyone with Earth observation capabilities, and now through this new SAR data source, we are closer than ever to unlocking that potential across many different industries,” Rafal Modrzewski, chief executive of Iceye, said in a Jan. 12 statement.

Canadian satellite operator Telesat also had a payload on the rocket, one of its two demonstration satellites for its planned low Earth orbit constellation. The 168-kilogram LEO Phase 1 satellite, built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. in the United Kingdom, will test technologies Telesat plans to use in a 120-satellite constellation the company plans to deploy by 2021. The other satellite, built by the University of Toronto’s Space Flight Laboratory, was lost on a failed Soyuz launch in November.

“The launch of our Phase 1 satellite is the starting point in making our next generation LEO system a reality and we thank SSTL and ISRO for the success of the mission to date,” Dan Goldberg, president and CEO of Telesat, said in a statement. The company said it will use the satellite in trials with a number of customers in “growing enterprise segments” later in the year.

SSTL also built an experimental high-resolution imaging satellite called Carbonite-2. It will be used by British imaging startup Earth-i to test a planned constellation of five such spacecraft that SSTL will build for the company for launch in 2019 under a contract announced in November.

Earth-i, which calls the satellite VividX2, expects this satellite and future ones to be able to provide both high-resolution still and video imagery. “We are now researching and testing the technology and data services for the Vivid-i Constellation using the still and video imagery from this prototype, and showing our customers what will be possible in the future from new capabilities such as color video from space,” Richard Blain, chief executive of Earth-i, said in a company statement.

Another Earth imaging company, Astro Digital, had one of its Landmapper-BC satellites on the company, and reported successfully communicating with the cubesat-class spacecraft shortly after the launch. The company lost two satellites on the November Soyuz mission that also carried the Telesat satellite, and declared two others launched on another Soyuz in July a failure in early September, citing “suspected launch anomalies” that damaged the spacecraft.

Planetary Resources, a company with long-term plans to mine asteroids for water and other resources, flew its Arkyd-6 demonstration satellite on the PSLV launch. The spacecraft, a six-unit cubesat, will test a suite of technologies, including a mid-wave infrared imager, the company plans to use on future missions to near Earth asteroids. Arkyd-6 is the company’s second demonstration satellite to reach orbit, after the Arkyd-3R satellite deployed from the International Space Station in 2015.

“The success of the Arykd-6 will validate and inform the design and engineering philosophies we have embraced since the beginning of this innovative project,” Chris Lewicki, president and chief executive of Planetary Resources, said in a statement. The company has previously stated it plans to carry out its first asteroid prospecting mission, using a larger spacecraft platform called the Arkyd-301, by 2020.

The mission did include some repeat customers. The launch carried four cubesats for Spire, which operates a constellation of cubesats to collect weather and ship-tracking data. Planet also launched four of its imaging cubesats on the PSLV. Those four satellites, collectively known as Flock-3p’, are technology demonstration satellites to test several key satellite subsystems.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...