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.
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 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.
India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, a remarkably reliable rocket, has just completed its most technically challenging launch to date, placing ScatSat 1 (an Indian weather satellite), Pathfinder 1 (a prototype commercial imaging satellite from American company BlackSky), AlSat 1B and AlSat 2B (a pair of Algerian Earth imaging satellites), an Algerian CubeSat, a Canadian CubeSat called CanX-7, and a pair of Indian student-built satellites called PRATHAM and PISAT. The complex deployment pattern required the PSLV’s fourth stage to relight twice, a first for the vehicle and a major step in positioning it to continue competing in the international launch market. This capability is critical for multi-payload deployments, an increasingly popular method of getting one’s payload into orbit more cheaply, especially as small satellites become far more capable.
First off, India’s PSLV made another successful flight, racking up its quota of successful low-cost launches to Earth orbit! In fact, it set a domestic record, carrying 20 satellites to orbit on this mission, easily a record for India, for customers in Indonesia, Canada, Germany, and the United States, including a Google payload.
Secondly, the Cygnus spacecraft from Orbital Sciences has completed its mission at the ISS and its post-ISS mission to conduct a fire experiment called SAFIRE. There will be more SAFIRE tests on future Cygnus flights, to better understand how fire propagates (or doesn’t) in weightlessness at scales not possible inside of crewed spacecraft for safety reasons.
Here’s raw video of the actual flames observed inside of Cygnus’ SAFIRE experiment module:
Then, yesterday, Cygnus fired its engines one last time to auger itself in over the South Pacific, carrying one last experiment: REBR, a Re-Entry Breakup Recorder, a device that has been flown on a few other returning disposable spacecraft such as ATV and HTV, to better understand how the breakup happens during reentry, with an eye to improving safety for the vehicles we want to actually survive the process. Waste not, want not. 😉
This particular Cygnus was named the SS Rick Husband, in honor of the late commander of STS-107, the final flight of Columbia.