You’d be forgiven if you had no idea India had a space program; it’s still in its fledgling stages, but it’s come incredibly far in a short amount of time. Yesterday, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) made history, launching a record-breaking 104 satellites aboard a single rocket.
The origins of the Indian space program date back to the 1920s and 30s, but the ISRO in its current form was established in 1969. The first Indian satellite, Aryabhata, was launched into space aboard a Russian rocket in 1975. The aim was to give the ISRO experience in building and launching a satellite. In 1980, the first Indian rocket carrying an Indian-made satellite, Rohini, was launched; this was also an experimental satellite. Rohini’s successful launch made India the sixth country in the world with the technology to launch craft into space.
The year 1984 saw the first Indian citizen soar into space. Rakesh Sharma left our planet aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule, which launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, then in the U.S.S.R., in a joint partnership between ISRO and Intercosmos, the Soviet Union’s space organization. (Intercosmos is now called Roscosmos). Sharma spent seven days aboard the Russian space station Salyut 7 conducting scientific experiments.
In 2008, India launched an unmanned lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, from its Satish Dhawan Space Center spaceport, located on a barrier island of South India. The spacecraft housed 11 different scientific instruments built by various countries (from India to Bulgaria to the United States) and orbited the moon over 3,400 times. ISRO lost contact with the spacecraft in late 2009. The ISRO plans to send a second spacecraft, Chandrayaan-2, to the moon in 2018.
India also had the distinction of launching Asia’s first successful Mars orbiter, the Mars Orbiter Mission, nicknamed Mangalyaan, on November 5, 2013. It reached the red planet just under one year later. It was the least expensive mission to Mars in history, with a rough price tag of just $74 million. NASA’s comparable Mars orbiter, MAVEN, cost $671 million, though MAVEN had significantly more capabilities than Mangalyaan.
ISRO’s sights are set high, but in between launching orbiters to other worlds, India’s space program has focused on increasing their launch capabilities. They’ve been building bigger and more sophisticated rockets capable of taking larger payloads to space. The ISRO has made a name for itself with its ability to deploy multiple satellites with one launch. This means that ISRO can launch their own satellites into space and sell the extra rocket space to third-party consumers, whether private companies or other countries. It’s an important cost saving measure for an organization that has been heavily criticized domestically for its spending, given India’s poverty rate.
India can accomplish this using the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), a reliable workhorse of a rocket that was responsible for the launch of both the lunar and Martian orbiters. Operating since 1993, it had put 122 satellites successfully into orbit before February 14, 2017, with 38 straight successful missions.
That number, 122 total satellites, should put ISRO’s accomplishment yesterday into perspective: In one launch, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle carried 104 satellites into orbit on a single rocket. These satellites weren’t just Indian: the PSLV carried spacecraft from companies located within the Netherlands, Switzerland, Israel, and even the United States.
The primary objective of yesterday’s mission was to launch the CartoSat-2D spacecraft, which is a satellite intended to study India. Using the CartoSat-2D, the Indian government can monitor land use and use its data for urban and rural planning projects. It took up over half the rocket’s payload weight.
Of the remaining space and weight available, the bulk of the payload belonged to a U.S. company called Planet, with ambitions to monitor the Earth from space. These satellites are tiny, which is how so many of them (88) were able to fit on one rocket. To reduce costs, the company buys space on missions that are already launching, like the February 14 PSLV launch. The collaboration was arranged by rocket crowdsharing company Innovative Solutions in Space.
With this record-setting launch, India has confirmed that not only are its spaceflight capabilities robust, but that its future in space is promising. What will be next for India, and where will it go from here? Will we see a manned Indian space mission in the next decade?
Swapna Krishna is a freelance writer, editor, and giant space and sci-fi geek. You can find her on Twitter at @skrishna.