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.)
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.
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. 😉
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.
This was a busy week for spaceflight. In addition to the ongoing SpaceX investigation and the OSIRIS-REx launch, there was also a launch from India and a landing in Kazakhastan.
First off, the successful return of Aleksey Ovchinin, Oleg Skripochka, and Jeffrey Williams aboard Soyuz TMA-20M earlier this week:
You may remember them as the crew that had this awesome mission patch:
And then from Sriharikota, India’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre, an all-domestic GSLV rocket blasted off, delivering the Insat 3DR weather satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit. The GSLV has had a difficult path, as various components are replaced or added or removed or changed and with an unfortunately high rate of failures. So this launch was particularly important for ISRO, which seeks to become a viable international competitor in the commercial launch market. Their rockets are cheaper even than Falcon 9, and GSLV’s increased performance over the highly reliable PSLV is critical in order to capture valuable geosynchronous business. (GSLV actually stands for Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle.) What’s more, ISRO will be depending on GLSV to place their next Chandrayaan moon probe into lunar transfer orbit — and that one will be their most ambitious deep space probe yet, featuring orbiter, lander, and rover in one mission. But until then, check out the Insat 3DR launch. Notice one unique feature: the core stage is solid, while the strap-ons are hypergolic, so the plume is inverted from what you’d expect on an Atlas or Long March launch. It’s an intriguing hybrid of a rocket — solid core, hypergolic strap-on boosters, and a cryogenic upper stage. And perhaps it is finally coming into its own.