ISRO’s mini launcher SSLV is unborn but has 2 flights booked

Mini space transport service SSLV (Small Satellite Launch Vehicle) of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has not even been “born” or unveiled. Yet it is already booked by two users – an Indian government customer and an overseas one. The deal with the foreign firm is also the first publicly announced one formalised by the barely five-month-old NewSpace India Ltd (NSIL), ISRO’s new commercial arm.

U.S.-based launch service organiser Spaceflight Inc. announced on Tuesday night that it had fully booked the “entire first commercial manifest [launch] of SSLV-D2”, slated for “later this year” for an unnamed customer. (D2 indicates the vehicle’s second demonstration or test launch.) The ISRO rocket would place four small earth observation satellites in two separate orbits.

For defence first ::

ISRO Chairman K. Sivan told The Hindu that before the commercial flight, the SSLV’s maiden flight may happen by the end of December. It would place a single Indian defence earth observation spacecraft of 500-kg class in a low-earth orbit. SSLV, the untested mini load-lifter, banks on the reputation of its elder sibling, the PSLV, considered an international favourite for its high reliability in safely and precisely placing small customer satellites in orbit - and at competitive prices.

The PSLV has so far lifted nearly 300 (mostly small) customer satellites to space and holds the world record for the highest number of 104 satellites launched in a single flight in February 2017.

Bridging a gap ::

Spaceflight quoted its CEO and president Curt Blake as saying, “The SSLV is the much-needed solution to fill the gap in the portfolio of small launch vehicles.” Designed for launches on demand with very short gaps between two flights, the SSLV, he said, “is perfectly suited for launching multiple micro-satellites at a time and supports multiple orbital drop-offs.”

The SSLV can lift satellites of up to 500 kg to space and which a handful of people can put together in three days - compared to a few months for the bigger rockets.

Mr. Blake indicated that Spaceflight planned to bring in many more paid rides on the SSLV: “first to LEO [low earth orbit] mid-inclinations this year and SSO [sun-synchronous orbit] missions starting in the fall of 2020.”

If we were to join a few dots for Spaceflight’s customer, the company owns BlackSky Global, which is readying a constellation of 60 small “Pathfinder” EO satellites at a 450-km orbit.

Back in September 2016, Spaceflight arranged to launch a test micro-satellite called BlackSky-1 Pathfinder as a piggyback on a PSLV.

Spaceflight also arranged rideshares or launches of 21small international satellites on the PSLV mission of last April.

Market boom ::

“We’re taking advantage of the growth in the small satellite market to deliver more launch options with the mini-launcher, and look forward to many more launches with Spaceflight,” said NSIL Director D. Radhakrishnan.

Globally launchers are a seller’s market with too many small satellites getting ready for different uses and not many vehicles ready to fly them to space when they want to. This is the niche ISRO eyes for its SSLV.

In a just released forecast for the decade 2019-2028, Alexandre Najjar, consultant for space industry monitor Euroconsult and editor of the report, said, “The smallsat market continues to grow in significance for investors, manufacturers, the supply chain, and a range of other stakeholders.”

According to Euroconsult, the launch and manufacture of small satellites together can increase about 3.5 times in the coming decade - from $ 12.6 billion in 2009-18 to $ 42.8 billion 2019-28. The next four years through 2023 would see an average of 835 smallsats launched each year; and 8,600 smallsats lined up for launch during the next decade.

The last two years set the tone for the growth with a 93% increase in the number of smallsats launched compared to 2014-16.

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