In its first failure of any kind in twenty years, India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle suffered a mishap during the climb to orbit for the INRSS 1H navigation satellite yesterday. INRSS 1H was meant to replace the first IRNSS satellite, which had lost the use of its super-precise clocks. (Several Galileo satellites have suffered an identical failure, which has been traced to the Swiss-manufactured rubidium clocks that are common between the spacecraft.) But it is a total loss now.
The launch appeared good at the start, but problems became apparent during second stage ascent, as it began to deviate from the programmed flight path, and the third stage performance was even further off. Cameras inside the payload fairing showed the reason: the payload fairing, scheduled to jettison just after leaving the dense lower atmosphere, had remained intact. The extra mass was responsible for the off-nominal performance, resulting in a orbit considerably lower than planned (and which probably cannot last more than a few days). After third stage burnout, the payload was released on schedule, but with the fairing still in place, the satellite doubtless ricocheted around inside and was likely damaged beyond recovery, even if the fairing could now be jettisoned.
It’s a very disappointing day for what has otherwise been an astonishingly successful rocket. It’s a keen reminder of the incredibly narrow margins for success in spaceflight. This stuff is starting to feel almost routine, but it’s really not, and things will still go awry. (This is the full broadcast; skip ahead about 14 minutes to get to the launch. At about 18 minutes, they start expecting the payload fairing separation, but that callout is conspicuous by its absence.)
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. 😉
Two more successful launches this week! First off, yesterday India placed the Resourcesat 2A spacecraft into orbit aboard a PSLV XL rocket from Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota Island. The satellite will fly on a polar orbit (inclination 98.7 degrees) to study resource utilization, soil contamination, water usage, and so forth across the Indian subcontinent.
Then this evening, a rare Delta IV Medium rocket (the “stick” configuration of the Delta IV, seldom used because although it is highly reliable, it is also highly *expensive*) placed the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) 8 satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. WGS-8 will serve military customers, providing both targeted and full-disk communications beams in variety of frequency bands. It is the most capable military commsat launched by the USAF, capable of serving multiple bands simultaneously and even switching between them on the fly.
And here’s a rather different perspective on the launch — a deceptively peaceful one, shot by a drone over nearby Cocoa Beach. The audio is from the operator’s cellphone, so mostly records the sound of the ocean waves rolling in. You have to listen carefully to hear the distant warbling roar of the rocket.
Two launches this morning on the other side of the world!
First, in Russia’s remote Amur region in eastern Siberia, their new Vostochny Cosmodrome has beaten the scandals and delays and the many years of debate about where to put it and how to fund it, and has received its first baptism of fire, placing a trio of civilian satellites into orbit aboard a Soyuz 2.1a. The three payloads include Mikhailo Lomonosov, a gamma-ray observatory operated by the Lomonosov Moscow State University; Aist-2D, an earth-observing satellite operated by Samara State Aerospace University, and a CubeSat named SamSat 218 built and operated by Samara State Aerospace University students.
Then, to the southeast of Vostochny, at the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, India, the workhorse PSLV rocket racked up another success by placing the final element of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) into orbit. With this final element in place, the constellation has been officially named “Navic”. IRNSS-1G is not yet in service; like all satellites, it will undergo a period of on-orbit testing before commissioning. Navic is only a seven-element constellation, but as India only aims to supply regional navigation services, this is sufficient. By contrast, systems such as GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo are intended to be used globally.