At about 9 am on Sunday, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced that its Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, SSLV-DI, had taken off successfully from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. However, after doing everything right on its maiden flight, the launcher faltered at the last step by placing the satellites it was carrying in the wrong orbit. The snag is a setback to ISRO’s attempt to showcase its capacity in a field of research that’s rapidly changing the face of space technology — the miniaturisation of satellites has enabled the entry of small players in an industry once dominated by large enterprises and state agencies like NASA. The SSLV-DI was touted as a competition to small satellite launchers developed by US-based private companies such as SpaceX and Rocket Lab.
Small satellites — weighing between 5 and 1,000 kg — can be assembled at a fraction of the cost of regular satellites. They can be put together as swiftly as 72 hours by substantially smaller teams. The global small sat market is expected to grow four times, to $13 billion, by 2030 with small businesses, government agencies, universities, even individual laboratories, entering the fray — in fact, SSLV-DI was carrying an 8-kg satellite made by 750 school girls to celebrate 75 years of the country’s independence. These satellites have utilities in fields as diverse as earth sciences, surveillance, telephony, healthcare, energy and smart power grids. But in most parts of the world, these satellites have to rely on rockets designed for bigger satellites. The constraints of such piggyback rides are beginning to show. In a good year, ISRO launches about five or six satellites. Compare that to the 143 small sats launched by a SpaceX rocket last year. The SSLV programme is expected to drastically increase ISRO’s launch rate. It’s also a lucrative business opportunity for the space research organisation.
Rocket launches have not always been smooth sailing for ISRO. The agency took seven years to perfect the ASLV (augmented satellite launch vehicle). Its third generation PSLV (polar satellite launch vehicle) had a difficult debut in 1993, but the snag was resolved in less than a year. The PSLV suffered another partial failure in 1995, which too was swiftly addressed. This ability to correct mistakes offers hope after Sunday’s disappointment. But given the competition from commercial players and the dynamic nature of the market, research on SSLVs will have to be conducted on far shorter timelines compared to ISRO’s earlier endeavours. The space agency’s work will be keenly watched.