617857724

617857724

The Milky Way rises over Leh City, India

Photo by: Pravit Kimtong

Pravit Kimtong

India’s Space Agency is Going Big… By Going Small

Astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter shares the latest in the world of rocket launches and what India’s SSLV is all about.

January 28, 2020

What a world we live in. Rocket launches into space are so routine nowadays that they’re…routine. Rockets go off every month now from platforms around the world, from Cape Canaveral to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, sending satellites, people, and deep-range spacecraft everywhere from low Earth orbit to the edges of the solar system – and beyond. Blast off after blast off, we are slowly and surely becoming an interplanetary species.

But it’s still expensive. I know it’s a hard concept to accept, but the standard approach for decades has been to ditch used rockets in random parts of the Earth’s oceans, letting millions of dollars’ worth of the most complicated engines ever made to simply sink to a watery grave. However, with recent advances in reusable rockets, access to space is getting cheaper by the day. But the current cheapest rocket, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster, still costs well north of $50 million to break these gravitational chains of ours.

560377927

560377927

Milkyway at Pangong Lake, Ladakh, India.

Photo by: Nimit Nigam

Nimit Nigam

Milkyway at Pangong Lake, Ladakh, India.

Enter the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO. Not content to outsource their commercial activities to some random rocket company, they’ve developed their own in-house solutions for all your payload-launching needs. And their latest offering, the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, does exactly what the name suggests. It’s a vehicle that launches small satellites into space and cheaply.

While the SSLV (sorry, it doesn’t have a snazzier name than that) isn’t reusable, meaning it’s still of the old-school one-and-done variety, it’s designed to launch satellites using as simple, reliable, and hopefully mass-produced parts as possible. If you’re going to ditch your rocket at the end of the ride, why splurge on the fancy trim levels?

The SSLV will hopefully enter service in early 2020 and is capable of lifting 500 kg in low Earth orbit, which is 500 kilometers up, or the nearest edge of what you can reasonably count as “actually being in space and having no immediate plans for coming back to Earth”.

The SSLV is extreme in its simplicity. It should cost only a little more than 4 million bucks to slap one together and can go from parts on the assembly room floor to liftoff in about a week. Unlike most launches, which require entire bureaucracies to monitor and support, the SSLV launch complex in Sriharikota will be staffed by half a dozen folks.

500 kg isn’t a lot of stuff, especially when it comes to high-powered satellites. But there’s definitely a niche here—as we get smarter and craftier with our spacecraft designs, we’re coming up with all sorts of uses for satellites on the slimmer side, including globe-spanning internet relays and spy orbiters.

I’m not kidding about the spacecraft spycraft. The first SSLV is dedicated to a top-secret mission with the Indian Armed Forces, and the second launch is already booked up by Spaceflight Industries, who will be sending up four of their “BlackSky” intelligence platforms.

And after that? Well, the sky certainly isn’t the limit anymore.

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

Next Up

NASA and SpaceX are Going on a Date, and We're All Invited

Save the date--On May 27th, if everything goes as planned, a rocket will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Watch SPACE LAUNCH LIVE: AMERICA RETURNS TO SPACE on Discovery and Science Channel starting at 2P ET.

Large Rocket Debris Impacts Earth Off African Coast

The fourth largest piece of space debris ever re-entered the earth's atmosphere yesterday and made a splash just off the coast of Africa. Narrowly missing some major landmarks in its path, this piece of a rocket could have caused some major damage.

All Aboard the Starliner!

Boeing’s Starliner capsule launched on Friday. Astrophysicist Paul M Sutter has everything you need to know about the Starliner and its mission.

Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Perseverance Right Over

A few years ago, after the successful deployment of the Curiosity rover on Mars, the folks at NASA envisioned a bold new plan to send another mission to the red planet. The mission was scheduled to depart in the then-futuristic year of 2020.

SpaceX vs. the Universe

Fans of space are having a tough time picking sides over a recent controversy between SpaceX and astronomers. But what's the big debate all about? Astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter digs into both perspectives.

Let’s Look for Water on the Moon

NASA is headed to the moon, but this time it's in search of water. Astrophysicist Paul M Sutter shares what this means and why it's important.

Voyager 2 is Really Far Out There, Man

Currently Voyager 2 is about 11 billion miles from the Earth, and has been traveling at speeds of tens of thousands of miles per hour since its launch in 1977. Read more to see where it is now and what we've learned.

2020: A Year of Big Leaps for Mankind

Here are a variety of some amazing space launches to look forward to in 2020.

What Could Delay the Historic SpaceX and NASA Launch?

Detailed planning and test after test do not always mean smooth sailing in space flight.

Meet the Not-So-Secret Space Airplane

The United States Space Force may have a somewhat silly name, but it's very, very real. And it just launched a semi-secret mission into space.
Related To: