Astrosat, India’s first dedicated astronomy satellite to be launched on Monday, will carry with it four shoe box-sized satellites of Spire Global, a US start-up building a global network of weather-monitoring satellites over oceans. This is the first time US commercial satellites will be launched on an Indian rocket.
So far, the San Francisco-based Spire has sent only experimental satellites, built with off-the-shelf electronic components, into space. Its satellites on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) will be the first of the 100 satellite constellations it plans to launch for weather-monitoring and tracking ships across oceans. The Spire satellites are named LEMUR.
“Indian rockets offer yet another wonderful opportunity for small satellites to reach the low-Earth orbit,” said Chris Wake, head of operations at Spire. “The cost to launch a Spire satellite is less than traditional satellites, largely due to its use of the standard form-factor Cubesat platform.”
Cubesat accounts for satellites weighing 1.33 kg. These satellites, initially used for research, are now being used for commercial applications, too. As these satellites are sent as co-passengers with large satellites, Spire says it is agnostic to the rocket service provider.
A 2014 study by SpaceWorks Enterprises estimated 2,000-2,750 nano/microsatellites would be launched globally by 2020.
This is an opportunity the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) is hoping to leverage for Indian industry, as the country goes about building high-precision satellites and launching those on powerful rockets.
On July 22, Union Minister of State for Atomic Energy and Space, Jitender Singh, said in the Lok Sabha that Isro’s workhorse rocket, the PSLV, had so far launched 45 satellites from 19 countries, earning around Rs 700 crore for the space agency. Isro has 28 satellites on order from foreign countries, including nine from the US, six from Singapore and four each from Germany and Canada.
Other firms in the small-satellite segment include PlanetLabs, which is planning 150 new satellites, and OneWeb, a global consortium that includes Virgin Group, Bharti Enterprises, and Qualcomm, which plans to send 648 small satellites and form a constellation to beam high-speed internet to local terminals.
Isro says India is in a position to capture a slice of not just the launch market, but also the market for such satellites in India. “Whenever there is large production of satellites, there will also be a requirement for sub-systems. There are many industries that can produce for global companies,” A S Kiran Kumar, chairman of Isro, said in a recent interview.
On Monday, Isro will launch the Astrosat, four US satellites and one each from Indonesia and Canada. While the Indian satellite is a space observatory to study celestial objects, all the six foreign ones will help in maritime observation and surveillance using the automatic identification system, a tracker used by ships to trace their location, along with that of other ships and ports.
- LEMUR: The nanosatellites from Spire, US, are non-visual remote sensing satellites, primarily for global maritime intelligence and weather forecasting
LAPAN-A2: A microsatellite from National Institute of Aeronautics and Space-LAPAN, Indonesia, it will provide maritime surveillance using the AIS
- NLS-14 (Ev9): A nanosatellite from the Space Flight Laboratory, University of Toronto Institute for Advanced Studies, it will also be used for maritime surveillance