The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) on Wednesday launched a record 104 satellites in one shot on board its workhorse rocket system, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

Flying its 39th mission since it became operational in 1993, the PSLV — called PSLV-C37 for Wednesday’s mission — delivered into space a payload of 1,378 kg in its 38th consecutive successful flight.

ISRO’s earth observation Cartosat-2 satellite (714 kg), from the Satish Dhawan Space Center at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, and its two “technology demonstration” nano satellites (INS-1 and 2) were the only Indian payloads on PSLV-C37. The rest were commercial launches for international customers, through agreements with ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix Corporation.

Of the 101 foreign satellites launched by PSLV on Wednesday, 96 are from the US — including 88 from the start-up, Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based earth imaging company — while one satellite each is from the Netherlands, Switzerland, Israel, Kazakhstan and the UAE.

All but eight of the satellites launched today, and nearly 50 others in the last few years, were meant for commercial applications and belonged to private companies, none of which are Indian. While privately-operated satellites are still not allowed to offer commercial applications in India, that is likely to change now.

“PSLV-C37 lifted off as planned at 9:28 am IST. After a flight of 16 minutes 48 seconds, the satellites achieved a polar Sun Synchronous Orbit of 506 km inclined at an angle of 97.46 degree to the equator (very close to the intended orbit) and in the succeeding 12 minutes, all the 104 satellites successfully separated from the PSLV fourth stage in a predetermined sequence beginning with Cartosat-2 series satellite, followed by INS-1 and INS-2,’’ said ISRO in a post-launch statement.

“All 104 satellites were successfully placed in orbit. My hearty congratulations to the entire ISRO team for the wonderful job they have done,” said ISRO Chairman A S Kiran kumar.

Though the launch involved a record number of satellites, it did not require any major technological leap on the part of ISRO. The greatest degree of difficulty in the mission has been attributed to the synchronous release of the satellite payload from the final stage of the PSLV rocket.

Earlier, the highest number of satellites launched on a single mission by ISRO was 20 satellites in June 2016, on board PSLV C34.

ISRO held the record for most number of satellites launched in one mission between 2008 and 2013, after launching 10 satellites in April 2008 on board PSLV C9. This number was overrun by NASA in November 2013, with the launch of 29 satellites on the Minotaur 1 rocket, and then by the Russian space agency Roscosmos State Corporation’s DNEPR rocket in November 2013 and June 2014 with the launch of 33 and 37 satellites respectively.

“After separation, the two solar arrays of the Cartosat-2 series satellite were deployed automatically and ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) at Bangalore took over the control of the satellite,’’ said ISRO.

This is the fourth satellite to be launched in ISRO’s Cartosat-2 series. The satellite will be used for mapping urban and rural regions, regulation of coastal land use, management of road networks, water distribution and other several other purposes.

The two ISRO Nano satellites (INS-1 and 2) are carrying instruments from its Space Applications Center (SAC) and Laboratory for Electro Optics Systems (LEOS) for experiments.

With Wednesday’s launch, the PSLV — ISRO’s medium lift rocket launcher — has put 226 satellites in space, including 180 foreign satellites and 46 homegrown ones.

Meanwhile, a more than six-year-old application by Hughes Network to launch a communication satellite and provide broadband data services is likely to be the first private operation to be cleared by the government. The company, which claims to be the world’s largest provider of broadband networks, already offers satellite-based internet services in several markets similar to India, including Brazil.

Hughes Global President Pradman Kaul told The Indian Express that clearance from the government looked “more imminent” now than ever before. A government official said the issue of letting private satellites operate from India was “being considered actively” but did not specify when the policy could be changed.

Interestingly, the demonetization decision and the push for digitization may weigh in favor of letting private satellites offer such services. Satellite-based broadband could be several times faster and more reliable than cabled networks that are available in India.

“In most countries, and specially India, about 10 to 15 per cent of the geographical area, where the terrain is difficult, would always remain unserviceable by traditional broadband networks because the economics doesn’t play out. Satellite-based broadband is the only solution for these areas… the demand for data and the speeds at which it has to be delivered is only going to increase. Technologies like the one that Hughes brings would therefore become compelling,” Kaul told The Indian Express.

Hughes is not the only one in the queue, and internet services are not the only ones that can be offered through private satellites. In fact, Team Indus, a Bangalore-based start-up that is in a race with four other teams to send a mission to the moon and win the Google XPRIZE competition, is preparing for a future in which it would be able to send its own satellites for different kinds of applications. It is already in the process of developing a communication satellite of its own. Another Bangalore start-up, Dhruva Space, says its vision is to lead the privatization of satellite industry in India.

ISRO itself is moving towards greater participation from private companies in satellite building as it seeks to focus on its core area of space research. Currently, several companies collaborate in the manufacture of ISRO satellites but the final assembly is always done in-house. At an industry interaction in Bangalore last year, ISRO said it was not averse to getting entire satellites built by private parties, instead of just asking for supply of components. – Indian Express