India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) is proving to be hugely versatile. On April 28, the launcher successfully carried no fewer than 10 satellites and ejected them with precision into their designated orbits. Since its first successful launch in 1994, the rocket has gone from strength to strength. In the course of 12 flights, the PSLV has carried 10 Indian remote sensing satellites, 14 small satellites for foreign customers (including eight launched on Monday), an amateur radio satellite, a meteorological satellite, and the country’s first recoverable space capsule. There have also been two dedicated launches carrying foreign satellites. Later this year, the highly dependable rocket will take Chandrayaan-1, India’s first lunar probe, on the first leg of its voyage to the Moon. The PSLV was conceived as a launcher to take India’s remote sensing satellites to a polar orbit. In its first successful flight, it carried a satellite weighing about 800 kg. Since then, scientists and engineers of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) have steadily developed the launcher’s capabilities and today the rocket can carry a payload that is twice as heavy.
The availability of this launcher has been a crucial factor in ISRO being able to set up a large constellation of earth-observation satellites. These satellites produce data that serve myriad practical purposes, from better crop acreage estimation to providing inputs for disaster relief. Monday’s launch saw the PSLV put into orbit two more remote sensing satellites, Cartosat-2A and the Indian Mini Satellite-1. ISRO has ambitious plans to expand the number and range of its earth-viewing satellites in space — and those satellites too will no doubt go up on the PSLV. Although the rocket has earned an enviable reputation as a rugged workhorse, India is still a relatively small player in a commercial market dominated by launch vehicles like Europe’s Ariane 5 that can carry heavy communication satellites. This is not a market segment that can be served either by the PSLV or the current generation of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). India can begin to think of competing in this area only when the next generation GSLV Mark-III becomes operational. Its first flight could take place in a year or two from now, according to the latest annual report of the Department of Space. The PSLV has proved to be a terrific asset, but Indian launch vehicles have quite some distance to travel and bigger payloads to transport before they can take on the best in the world.