Ariane V has added to an already busy launch week with a successful liftoff, placing two geosynchronous commsats onto the geosynchronous transfer orbit. HellasSat 3/Inmarsat -S-EAN, a spacecraft jointly owned by Hellas Sat and Inmarsat, will provide S-band and Ku-band services to customers in Europe, the Mideast, and Africa. GSAT 17, a civilian commsat operated by the Indian Space Research Organization, will provide C-band services to customers in India, mainly television services. This was the 80th successful consecutive Ariane V launch.
First off, India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle has completed its fortieth launch. It placed Cartosat 2E (an Earth observation spacecraft), NIUSAT (a student-designed agricultural mapping satellite), and 29 nanosatellites successfully into Earth orbit. One extra twist for this mission was a new function of the upper stage: it was restarted three times during the flight, demostrating the ability to place payloads into a variety of orbits. With the explosion of interest in smallsats, such a capability will have enormous competitive value. Underlining the competitive nature of this market, many of the smallsats flown on this mission were originally scheduled to fly on other rockets: some were meant to fly on a Falcon 9 that was delayed due to last year’s mishap and consequent flight reshuffling, and others were originally slated for the Dnepr rocket, which is now in limbo thanks to deteriorating relations between its Russian and Ukrainian partners. It speaks to the fact that the current market prizes flexibility and rapid flight availability, and India has been deliberately and shrewdly positioning themselves to capture this sort of business. The spaceflight game is changing.
Meanwhile, much farther north, Russia launched a Soyuz rocket from Plesetsk Cosmodrome. The payload is classified, and so is almost certainly a spy satellite. The high-latitude launch complex is primarily of interest for spacecraft going into mapping orbits. Outside observers speculate that the payload (designated Kosmos 2519) is the first of the 14F150 Napryazhenie satellite series, which are believed to be geodetic mapping satellites designed to carefully map the Earth’s gravitational field. From a military perspective, the primary value would be in more precise targeting of ballistic missiles, which are at the mercy of tiny fluctuations in the gravitational field as they coast to their targets, although it’s possible it could be used for other sorts of intelligence. The NASA-operated GRACE spacecraft have been used to measure the drawdown of aquifers, for instance, so there are probably other applications one can come up with which have a more specific military or reconnaissance function.
This was a very different looking Soyuz rocket, flying as a naked core stage, lacking the conical strap-on boosters that give the vehicle its distinctive appearance. And it had another interesting detail: the engines were NK-33s, surplus from the N-1 mega-rocket program in the 1960s and 1970s. NK-33 has a somewhat mixed track record; although the manufacturer denied fault, the engines were implicated in the loss of an Orbital Science Antares rocket and its Cygnus payload “Deke Slayton” from Wallops Island in Virginia a few years ago. But it performed fine for this mission.
India has upgraded their GSLV rocket, and made a fully successful maiden flight of the new model, delivering GSAT 19, a geosynchronous commsat. The GSLV family has had issues, but hopefully they are now resolved. This new version is also considerably more powerful, putting it into contention with all the major geosynchronous launch providers on the commercial market. This also gives them, for the first time, the performance necessary for a crewed launch, although ISRO does not yet have any announced plans to pursue human spaceflight.
I can’t believe I missed this when it happened! India launched another Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, placing the GSAT-9 commsat into orbit. They’re offering GSAT-9, aka the South Asia Satellite, for the use of all nations in South Asia. This has had a somewhat mixed reception, with Pakistan seeming particularly unimpressed, but Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives are all signed on to make use of the vehicle.
This is pretty cool. 😉
On October 22, 2008, India joined the elite group of nations which have successfully sent spacecraft to orbit the Moon. The mission was successful, conducting joint operations with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS impactor, deploying an impactor of its own to help search for lunar ice (and making India only the fourth country to place its flag upon the Moon), and providing the first definitive proof of water ice in the lunar soil. The mission was cut short, however, when the spacecraft abruptly stopped responding to ground commands on August 29, 2009. The cause of the failure was never determined, but it had been experiencing issues in several systems, including the star tracker that keeps its antenna aligned with Earth.
Like other deep space spacecraft, the moment it stopped transmitting it became impossible to track from Earth — the Moon is much too far away to track such small objects (in Chandrayaan-1’s case, about 1.5 meters by 1.5 meters) by radar.
Or is it?
As international governmental and private space programs grow at an astonishing rate, it has become clear that space traffic will increasingly become a problem not just in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and in the immensely valuable Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO, the province of most communications satellites) but in deep space as well. The recent move of the MAVEN spacecraft to dodge Mars’ innermost moon, Phobos, also underscores the hazards. So JPL conducted a study to see whether lunar spacecraft actually could be tracked from Earth. And guess what — they can!
JPL’s first target was LRO, because it’s an active spacecraft and therefore its real position is known with exquisite precision. Having located it with ground-based radar, the team moved on to something trickier: the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft. Lunar spacecraft are difficult, because the Moon is so lumpy that a) dead spacecraft don’t stay long unless their orbits are fairly high, and b) orbits can be difficult to predict over long timescales. Nevertheless, they found it. Chandrayaan-1 is dead, but not gone, and certainly not forgotten.
This edited rocketcam footage from the C37 PSLV mission is pretty awesome, because it shows all 104 spacecraft making it safely away into their designated orbits. It gives me amazing joy to see all these little spacecraft just being spat out into orbit; it’s amazing this can be done, and flawlessly at that!
India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which has become quite the commercial workhorse in the last few years, just obliterated the record for most satellites placed into orbit with a single launch, placing an incredible 104 satellites into orbit. The primary payload was Cartosat 2D, a large environmental mapping satellite. After it was released, two Indian nanosatellites were ejected to test out new sensors. And then came the real marathon — 101 satellites being deployed from 25 Dutch-built “QuadPack” launchers, while the PSLV’s upper stage maintained a very precise and stable orientation as the remaining satellites were ejected two at a time. If that’s not amazing enough, here’s another tidbit for you: the QuadPacks were only added to the launch manifest in the past six months! They’re built by a company called Innovative Solutions in Space, which aims to reduce the time and other barriers to getting a payload into orbit by arranging “rideshare” deals on other spacecraft. This was most definitely the biggest rideshare they’ve arranged so far. Among the 101 were eight Lemur weather nanosats from Spire Global of San Francisco, BGUSat from Ben Gurion University and Israel Aerospace Industries, the experimental Piezo Electric Assisted Smart Satellite Structure (PEASS) from the Netherlands, DIDO from SpacePharma in Switzerland, Al-Farabi 1 from students in Kazakhstan, Nayif 1 from students in the United Arab Emirates, and a whopping 88 Dove satellites for Planet, a San Fransisco satellite imaging company that has been arranging various “flocks” of its Dove satellites. This is by far the largest flock yet.
So, what does a launch of 104 satellites look like? Well, disappointingly, from the ground it looks like any other, since all the interesting stuff happens after its above the atmosphere. But that still means it looks pretty cool. 😉