Nations around the world have watched with envy as India has garnered a reputation for being a budget-friendly option for launching satellites into space. In February this year, India broke the world record of sending the most satellites into orbit on a single mission, securing the nation's reputation as a reliable and well-priced satellite launcher. The nation's success hasn't gone unnoticed by its top regional competitor.
The government-run Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched 104 satellites in a single mission on February 15, 2017, overtaking the previous record held by Russia which launched 37 satellites in a single mission in 2014. The purpose of the mission wasn't to launch just Indian satellites – it launched satellites for other nations around the world – a task India has become famous for.
Just three of the satellites launched by India were Indian, while most of them were from the United States, which sent 96 of the 104 satellites into space via India's launch. Israel, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland and the Netherlands were among the other clients. According to reports, many of the satellites in the launch have earth-imaging capability and belong to US company 'Planet'.
Observers of the launch, which took place at the Sriharikota space center in east India, noted that the event was a clear indicator that India is emerging as a key player in the multi-billion dollar space industry, by marketing itself as a low-cost option. Speaking to reporters at the launch, project director B Jayakumar said: "This is a great moment for each and every one of us. Today we have created history."
Among the many to applaud India on its achievement was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who congratulated the scientists in charge of the mission. Modi called the event a "remarkable feat" which was "yet another proud moment" for India's space scientific community and the nation. "India salutes our scientists," he said.
On board the launch was an Indian cartographic satellite, believed to be capable of taking high-resolution images. The satellite is expected to be used to monitor regional rivals such as Pakistan and China.
It hasn't gone unnoticed by China that India has done a better job at promoting satellite launch technology, which could prompt Beijing to fast-track commercialization of its rocket launches to fight for the world's small satellite market, according to Chinese officials.
"The launch indicated that India can send commercial satellites into space at lower costs, giving the country competitiveness in the global race for the burgeoning commercial space businesses," said Zhang Yonghe, director of the new technology department of the Shanghai Engineering Centre for Microsatellites, who was quoted by Chinese media.
In a Chinese-run state media report titled 'India's satellite launch ramps up space race', Chinese officials indicate that China will likely move forward with commercialization of its rocket launches after India's global success. India beat China to the race by reaching Mars first in 2014 and has now stolen the show again by putting 104 satellites into orbit in a single rocket launch.
"The Wednesday's launch is India's latest triumph for its space program," reported Chinese national newspaper the Global Times. "In 2014, India became the fourth country to successfully send a spacecraft to orbit Mars, signaling a regional rivalry with China which suffered in its Mars mission in 2012," it read.
A Communist Party of China publication noted that while the recent achievement made Indians proud, the impact it will have is "limited". The report praised the record braking launch labeling it "India's triumph", but added, "with respect to the research and development of both military and commercial rocket launch services, India lags behind China, the US and Russia."
Zhang Yonghe was quoted as saying: "India cannot match them yet unless it has enough rocket types to fulfill all satellite launches."
Regardless, India's Space Research Organization is on a successful path with a past to prove it. In 2014 the first Indian spacecraft reached Mars. The ISRO Mars mission cost $74 million, in comparison to the United States space agency, NASA, which spent $670 million on its Mars mission a few months later. India's effort was welcomed as evidence that an economical program can achieve technological success.
Another significant achievement for India was in September 2016 when the nation sent up eight satellites into two separate orbits in a single mission, which was a first for ISRO, allowing it to reach another milestone in its low-cost space mission. It was the 37th flight for ISRO's rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). A further seven satellites were sent up into a different orbit carrying three for Algeria: one each from Canada and the US, and two for Indian educational institutions.
India's space agency is now experienced in sending satellites into space, but this was the first time that the agency had sent up satellites into two different orbits. The mission was also the rocket's longest mission, taking about two hours and 15 minutes to complete, according to ISRO.
"It was a moment of immense joy and pride for India," said Narendra Modi in a congratulatory message after the launch. He said that the successful launch "touched the lives" of 1.25 billion Indians and "made India proud worldwide".
India has increased the budget for its space program. It also has set up a fund for a possible second mission to Mars and its first trip to Venus. But some scientists have spoken with similar criticism to the Chinese report, in saying that while India can send smaller satellites into space, it still has some way to go before it can launch heavier ones.
In the Chinese report, Xue Lijun, general manager assistant of Shenzhen Aerospace Dongfanghong Development Ltd., acknowledged that India's recent launch was significant in terms of numbers, but not significant in terms of technology. The report quoted another "expert" as saying, "The 104 satellites are mostly in the same orbit, indicating that India still lacks capabilities of sending multiple satellites into various orbits."
Nevertheless, the demand for connectivity, on-the-go and everywhere, is a tremendous growth driver for the satellite industry today, particularly among governments, which has increased the demand for cheaper satellite launches. Therefore, India has risen to the challenge. Last year the nation launched 75 satellites for foreign customers.
India celebrated the successful launch of 20 satellites in a single mission on June 22 last year, which was recognized at the time as the most significant launch of India's ambitious space program. The satellites sent to space belonged to the United States, Canada, Germany and Indonesia. The launch also took place at the Sriharikota space center.
Experts said the launch indicated how the developing nation was emerging as a major player in the multi-billion dollar space industry. The payload included an Indian cartographic satellite, as well as others belonging to India's universities and also international customers. Thirteen of the satellites were from the US, including one made by a Google-owned company.