India’s PSLV C-37 mission lifts off on Feb. 15 carrying 104 satellites, a record, including 96 satellites from two U.S. commercial fleet operators. U.S. companies need secure a waiver to existing government policy to launch on India’s rocket. This wasn’t the first such waiver. Credit: DD Television screenshot via Youtube.
PARIS — The successful launch Feb. 15 of India’s PSLV rocket carrying 104 satellites testifies to the vehicle’s increasing flexibility and a much-needed provider of launch services for owners of very small satellites for commercial companies and research organizations.
It is also a glaring example of a U.S. government policy that has been so overtaken by events that it is in fact dead even as it remains on the books.
The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Agreement of 2005 prohibits the launch of commercial satellites on the Indian vehicle. The reasoning is that struggling U.S. commercial launch providers needed time to establish themselves in the market and would be wiped out by India’s PSLV, which is developed by the Indian Space Organization.
Since 2015, commercial satellite owners have successfully obtained waivers to the policy.
The PSLV’s Feb. 15 mission carried 96 U.S. commercial satellites, 88 for geospatial imagery provider Planet of San Francisco, which now has offices in Canada and Europe; and eight satellites for Spire Global, whose growing fleet provides maritime ship detection and meteorological data. Also based in San Francisco, Spire too has a European office.
Spire first used the PSLV in 2015, an event that was cheered by the U.S. ambassador to India at the time.
B. Jayakumar, ISRO’s mission director for the Feb. 15 launch, said PSLV has launched 226 satellites so far, of which 179 were foreign.
The graphic above, from the office of the Indian prime minister, gives an example of PSLV pricing. The higher prices were for missions where the foreign customer was the main payload. Lower prices are for secondary payloads.
The question for U.S. policy makers is whether the United States prefers to be better known for producing commercial rockets, or for developing innovative satellites and the associated downstream businesses.
Sherpa’s long trek
It’s not easy to do both at the same time. One of the more dynamic “New Space” companies, Spaceflight Services of Seattle, has designed a carrier, called Sherpa, that has rounded up 87 satellite customers to launch on a single SpaceX Falcon 9.
But that launch is tethered to the Falcon 9 flight manifest, which as was the case two years ago, and then again last year, is now supposed to be on the cusp of a twice-per-month launch rate that will allow it to work through its lengthy customer waiting list in short order.
Industry experts agree that SpaceX ultimately will get to that flight rate. But when? In the meantime, small satellite operators with commercial businesses have investors and customers to satisfy.
One Spaceflight customer said the Sherpa mission is now not expected before 2018.
Virgin Galactic, a U.S.-based company backed by Richard Branson, has likewise delayed its Launcher One satellite-launch vehicle on multiple occasions and whether it will be ready for commercial customers in 2017 is unclear.
ISRO is now taking steps to “industrialize” its rocket production, gradually turning over responsibility to the private sector, an effort that is being aided by the French space agency, CNES, under a joint CNES-ISRO agreement.
The industrialization of PSLV is expected to coincide with an increased flight rate, which will further reduce the unit costs of the vehicle and presumably open up new launch opportunities for non-Indian customers, commercial or otherwise.
Aside from the 96 U.S. commercial satellites, the Feb. 15 launch carried small satellites for Israel, Kazakhstan, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates in addition to the main payload, India’s Cartosat-2D Earth observation satellite and two Indian nanosatellites, e with science payloads.
Companies such as Planet, Spire and Spaceflight have been discreet about the U.S. policy, saying they are thinking of their customers and business models and would prefer to avoid a political fight in Washington over launcher access.
But commercial launch interests in the United States are unlikely to let things stand as they are, with a policy honored in the breach and no end in sight to the Indian threat.
U.S. industry says India is ‘dumping’ launches onto market
Here is how the U.S. Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) stated its case to the U.S. Congress in April 2016:
“[P]ricing for commercial launch services on Indian rockets historically has not reflected the true costs associated with their initial development and ongoing launch operations, putting U.S. commercial launchers at a disadvantage in competitions for these class of payloads. In effect, India is dumping these vehicles on the commercial market to the detriment of U.S. firms,” CSF said.
“We would encourage the U.S. Congress to support American firms offering legitimate pricing for launch services in this market.”
Coming to a commercial market near you: India’s GSLV Mark 3
On the heels of the PSLV is India’s GSLV Mark 3 rocket, designed to carry satellites weighing up to 4,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit, the destination of most telecommunications satellites.
As is the case with start-up U.S. rockets, the GSLV is far behind schedule but is moving inexorably toward operations. A 50-second test of its CS 25 cryogenic upper-stage engine on Jan. 25 was declared a success.
ISRO Chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar said after the PSLV launch that a flight-duration test of the engine, lasting 640 seconds, was scheduled for Feb. 17.
India’s own satellite production continues apace. The three domestic payloads launched on Feb. 15 bring to 97 the number of ISRO-built spacecraft placed into orbit, from the 8- to 10-kilogram nanosats on the most recent flight to 3,500-kilogram telecommunications satellites typically launched by Europe’s Arianespace consortium.
With the global commercial launch market so small — 25 units per year, and sometimes less — India’s removal of its own domestic telecommunications fleet from the market could have a outsized effect on the market’s overall health.