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LIFTOFF

The force is strong: How ISRO nailed it in 2016

By Manu Balachandran

Two years after it stunned the world by launching the world’s cheapest Mars orbiter mission in its first attempt, India’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), launched as many as 34 satellites into space in 2016. These included 22 foreign satellites and 12 Indian ones.

India’s indigenously-developed Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) did most of the heavy lifting, carrying 33 of these satellites. Only one of ISRO’s satellites was put into orbit through French company Arianespace because of its heavier weight, which the Indian space agency can’t yet handle.

In September, ISRO sent 20 satellites into orbit on one rocket, the highest number it has launched in one go. But that feat will soon be bettered as the agency is now gearing up to launch a record 83 satellites in one go—setting a world record—in Jan. 2017.

Of the 83 satellites, 80 belong to Israel, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Switzerland and the US. The remaining three belong to India.

These exploits are helping to rake in the moolah. The Indian space agency’s commercial arm, Antrix Corporation, currently has an order book of Rs500 crore ($73 million), which is expected to increase by another Rs500 crore if ongoing negotiations are successful. Globally, the satellite industry stood at $208 billion in 2015, according to Washington DC-based Satellite Industry Association.

“Launch capacity globally is limited,” AS Kiran Kumar, chairman of ISRO, told Bloomberg last month. “Why are people coming to us? Because they are looking for the most cost-effective, short turnaround-time launches.”

This year, ISRO also made headway with its indigenous space shuttle programme. On May 23, the space agency successfully tested a prototype of a reusable space shuttle, which was about six times smaller than the final planned vehicle. Around 600 scientists at ISRO have been working on the space agency’s shuttle programme for a decade now. If and when the final shuttle is built, India will be among the select few countries to have such a vehicle as part of their space programmes.

“We need more and more capacity, launch capacity,” Kumar said on Dec. 27. “We are working toward that. Our effort is to continuously increase.”

Here is a list of ISRO’s successes through 2016.

Date Launch
January Launches the fifth satellite in the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), a GPS system
March Launches the sixth satellite in the IRNSS
April Launches the seventh in the IRNSS. Completes the process of setting up India’s own GPS and navigational system
May Tests a prototype of the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV)—a reusable space shuttle designed to put satellites into orbit
June Launches 20 satellites into space
September Launches India’s weather satellite INSAT-3DR
December Launches Resourcesat, a remote sensing data satellite