On March 26, India’s civil space organization, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) carried out a successful launch of 36 satellites, weighing 5,805 kg, into orbit. The satellites, belonging to the U.K.-based company, OneWeb, were launched using the LVM3 launch vehicle, what used to be called the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III, a three-stage medium-lift launch vehicle developed by the ISRO.
An ISRO press release said that with this launch, NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), the commercial arm of the ISRO that entered into a contract with the OneWeb, has “successfully executed” the launch of OneWeb’s 72 satellites to Low Earth Orbit. OneWeb later confirmed acquiring signals from the 36 new satellites. This is the second time that OneWeb has contracted the NSIL to launch its satellites. With the satellite launch in March, OneWeb’s satellite constellation now has a total of 618 satellites. OneWeb is preparing to launch its global services soon, providing connectivity for governments, businesses, and others. OneWeb notes the enormous ability of the LEO-based satellites to offer high-speed, low latency solutions across the world, involving not only business communities but “towns, villages, municipalities and schools, including the hardest-to-reach areas across the country.”
OneWeb previously launched its satellites through Roscosmos, but since the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, its ties with Moscow have been cut. In March 2022, OneWeb signed an agreement with the Indian space agency to launch its satellites. OneWeb’s first satellite launch through ISRO, a total of 36 satellites, took place in October 2022. With the October launch, ISRO in a press release said that the launch “has become a catalyst for the Indian Space Program, opening new vistas for heavy payloads to the LEO.” After the launch, ISRO Chairman, S. Somnath characterized the launch as “very historic to the country and the Indian Space Program. This is the first-ever commercial launch of LVM3 with the heaviest payload to LEO. The LVM3 was conceived primarily for launching geostationary satellites with a payload capacity of 4T, which can be used for launching 6T payloads for LEO.” Congratulating the different stakeholders, he added that “This will pave way for more launches in the future.”
Sunil Bharti Mittal, executive chairman of OneWeb, echoed similar sentiments, calling it “a significant milestone for OneWeb.” The seamless manner in which all the stakeholders worked to make the mission a success, demonstrated ISRO’s ability to attract foreign customers, including foreign commercial players. This will not only highlight the Indian space prowess, especially considering the small budget with which it operates, but also open up a new revenue stream for the ISRO.
The consecutive successful flights of LVM3 are a big boost to establishing its credentials in the commercial launch market. The agency also made a revenue of 10 billion Indian rupees ($121 million). Earlier, India’s competency was limited to small payloads using its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), primarily meant for Low Earth Orbit and polar launches. With the LVM3, India can potentially capture a sizeable chunk of the medium-sized payload market as well. This was LVM3’s sixth launch; its past missions include the Chandrayaan-2 launch in 2019. Somnath, chairman of ISRO, noted that this mission had used the “upgraded motors with enhanced margins suitable for the upcoming Gaganyaan mission and the motors performed very well.” LMV3 will also be used for India’s human space mission, Gaganyaan, under the Indian Human Spaceflight Program.
LVM3 has come a long way since its maiden flight in December 2014. GSLV-Mk III, a three-stage rocket with two solid motor strap-ons (S200), a liquid propellant core stage (L110) and a cryogenic stage (C25), is capable of carrying 4-ton class of satellites to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). The first orbital flight of the GSLV Mk III took place in June 2017, launching India’s communication satellite, GSAT-19. This was the heaviest rocket with a payload of 3,136 kg that India had launched. The first operational flight of GSLV Mk III took place in July 2019 for India’s second Moon mission. As mentioned earlier, the first commercial launch of the rocket happened in October 2022, launching 36 satellites for OneWeb. With a payload weighing about 5,796 kg, this was possibly the heaviest payload that ISRO has launched, although the March launch involved a marginally heavier payload.
Successive successful launches of LVM3 are remarkable for India in many ways. India is gaining a certain amount of self-sufficiency in launching medium-sized payloads. Earlier, India depended on Arianespace to launch its heavier payloads. Even though ISRO had a credible rocket in the PSLV, it could not be used to launch heavier payloads, which was a weakness in India’s space program. Gaining proficiency in LVM3 also opens up business and commercial possibilities. The cost-effectiveness of India’s satellite launches along with a credible launch system offers India enormous opportunities. Each successful mission also adds to the inspirational value for other developing countries who aspire to develop a cost-effective and efficient space program. This is a pretty big achievement for a space program that is run on a shoestring budget compared to some of the other big space powers.