Imagine more than 100 satellites taking a ride on a rocket and successfully launching into Earth's orbit...
On Feb 15, 2017, a new space record was set when an Indian rocket, belonging to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) carried a gigantic haul of satellites into space.
In a successful mission, ISRO's PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) rocket launched 104 individual satellites. The previous record was held by Russia when it launched 39 satellites in a single mission in June 2014.
Among PSLV's cargo was India's earth observatory that weighed 714 kgs, and 103 nano (small) satellites that together weighed 644 kgs. The nano-satellites belonged to India, Israel, Kazakhstan, The Netherlands, Switzerland, UAE and the United States.
“Doves” Photograph The Earth
While the launch was a record for India, it was also a record for Planet Labs, a private US imaging company.
Of the nano-satellites launched into orbit, 88 are small space probes called 'Doves', that form a web of satellites to continuously monitor Earth from space.
Usually earth-imaging satellites are large - about the size of a school bus. “Doves” are just four inches wide and a foot long. A host of them circle the earth, and together the web of over 100 Doves in orbit can take pictures of Earth at high resolutions. Since 'Doves' are small and relatively light, they can piggyback on other rocket rides. They are also cheap to replace if any of them fail.
Launching Multiple Satellites
Launching one satellite successfully from a rocket is in itself a marvel. So how would one spaceship put many satellites in orbit in one mission?
In its recent launch, PSLV first deployed India's Cartosat 2D - the main satellite that it was carrying. This was followed by the nano-satellites that were were launched in a sequence every 10 to 20 seconds. The nano-satellites were packed inside a box, and like a Jack-in-the-box, a door would spring open, pushing out two satellites at a time into space.
Unlike other countries whose space programs are very expensive, India’s space program is very frugal. In 2013, India launched a probe to Mars that cost just $73 million compared to NASA’s Mars mission which had a price tag of $671 million.
Commercial satellites are becoming increasingly important with the need for phone, internet and other high-tech communications. Meanwhile, the largest space organization, NASA, has dialed back its space program and is instead relying on private companies and other international agencies to take cargo to space.