The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is on the cusp of making history when it sends 104 satellites into orbit on its PSLV-C37 rocket on February 15. Only three of them are Indian satellites.
Notably, in ISRO’s first mission of 2017, a single U.S. Earth imaging company, Planet, has made an eye-popping bulk booking for 88 of its small ‘cubesats’.
No space agency has launched such a large number of satellites in a single flight so far. (While ISRO’s PSLV launched 20 satellites last year, Russia’s Dnepr launcher holds the record for lifting 37 satellites to orbit in June 2014.)
The PSLV will carry a main remote-sensing satellite in the Cartosat-2 series and two small spacecraft, all for ISRO, and 101 small foreign commercial satellites.
The 88 cubesats are part of Planet’s earth observation constellation of 100 satellites. They weigh around 5 kg each and are called ‘Doves’ or Flock 3p. For California-based Planet, too, it will be the record largest number of cubesats to be flown in a single launch, according to one of its executives.
Planet, an earth observation company formed in 2010 by former NASA scientists, has chosen ISRO’s PSLV launch for the second time. It got its earlier set of 12 ‘Doves’ launched in June last year.
Cartosat-2 & INS-1
The main passenger on PSLV-C37 will be the fourth in the Cartosat-2 series, a very high resolution Earth observation satellite of about 650 kg, and occupies roughly half the space in the launch vehicle. It will carry two more Indian nano satellites, INS-1A and INS-1B, each weighing about 10 kg. They have a short lifespan of six to 12 months.
All the payloads will totally weigh around 1,500 kg, according to an ISRO official who did not want to be named. The 88 Doves would be released in sets of four cubesats. The other co-riders are cubesats or small specialised satellites of customers from Israel, the UAE, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. They will be released separately into their orbits at around 500 km from Earth. While ISRO has been cagey about giving details of its customers,
Planet’s executive Mike Safyan announced on Friday, “In February, we are launching 88 satellites — the largest fleet of satellites launched in history. The Dove satellites, collectively known as “Flock 3p,” will ride aboard a PSLV rocket from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.”
“This is the 15th time Planet is launching Dove satellites; and it will be our biggest launch to date. Combined with the 12 satellites of Flock 2p operating in a similar orbit, this launch will enable Planet’s 100-satellite ‘line scanner’ constellation of Doves,” Mr. Safyan said.
Since September 2015, the PSLV has launched 18 small U.S. earth imaging satellites in a total of 79 foreign spacecraft — which earns it some revenue and an increasing global market share.
The Planet series comes even as COMSTAC, (Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee under the U.S. FAA) is considering if U.S. satellites can be sent to space on Indian launchers. Sources said PSLV’s U.S. clients were being approved on individual basis.