India just launched 104 satellites, but it has a long way to go to become a global space player
On February 15, the Indian Space Research Organisation launched a rocket that put 104 satellites into orbit around the earth, breaking a world record as it did so. It was a remarkable achievement for India’s space organisation, which has now had 36 consecutively successful launches of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles since 1994.ISRO has consistently been in the headlines over the last few years for its rapid developments in space technology, including the cheapest Mars mission ever designed and its indigenously built cryogenic engine that will be the first step towards putting heavier loads including humans and large satellites into space.But how does ISRO stack up against other space organisations, both government and private?There are two ways to assess this: technological developments and commercial growth.
The Cold War era of intense rivalry between the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics led to a “space race” after the USSR launched Sputnik I, the world’s first satellite, in 1957. The two countries pushed each other to the limits to send ever-larger satellites and finally humans into space and to the moon.The European Union, Japan, Canada, Russia and the US jointly operate the International Space Station, a habitable artificial satellite. These countries also have the world’s premier space organisations that conduct both research and launches. While the US and Russia have scaled back on human spaceflight, China is still pursuing this technology. It sent its first astronaut into space in 2008. Neither the European Space Agency nor the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency have independently sent humans into space.Along with these five, India’s is only the sixth space agency in the world to have complete launch facilities, to operate cryogenic engines and to send probes to extraterrestrial bodies.However, India still has a long way to go. Although it successfully sent an orbiter to Mars in 2013, and was the first country to achieve this on its first attempt, India is only just beginning to harness the potential of its cryogenic engine to launch Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles into space. These vehicles travel into higher orbit than PSLVs and can carry satellites weighing more than 2,000 kilogrammes.