In February, India broke a record. The Indian Space Research Organisation launched a whopping 104 satellites into orbit, besting the previous record—37 satellites on a Russian rocket in 2014.
The deployment was a “remarkable feat” and proud moment for the space community and the entire nation, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a tweet. “India salutes our scientists.”
The large number of satellites was possible because all but one of the satellites were nanosats weighing less than 10 kg (about 20 pounds). The majority were from the United States, two were from India, and there was one each from Kazakhstan, Israel, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates. The only non-nano sat was from ISRO, designed for imagining and mapping applications. It was the heavyweight at more than 1,500 pounds.
Still, the feat was nontrivial. Engineers had to calculate precise trajectories and carefully choreograph the satellites unfurling. There were no crashes. Mission accomplished.
This wasn’t the first time ISRO won international headlines for its savvy engineering. Back in 2014, the organization placed a spacecraft called Mars Orbiter Mission in orbit around the red planet. India was the fourth country to do this—after the United States, Russia (first as the Soviet Union), and the European Space Agency—and the only country to do so on its first try. What’s more, the mission, which was more of a technology demonstration than a scientific investigation, was comparably cheap: reportedly only $73 million. (Modi noted that MOM cost less to make than the movie Gravity, though not exactly a balanced comparison.) In contrast, NASA’s most recent Mars orbiter, MAVEN, loaded with cutting-edge scientific instruments and launched in 2013, cost $671 million.
These days, ISRO seems to be everywhere. The Indian government continues to boost its budget year over year. The organization is planning an orbiter-lander-rover mission back to the moon (its first was an orbiter in 2008) and another satellite mission to Mars. It’s also considering an orbiter to Venus to study the planet’s hot and cloudy atmosphere. All this amid an increasingly busy launch schedule for its reliable polar satellite launch vehicle rocket, the one that pushed those 104 sats into orbit. In 2008, ISRO launched only two PSLVs; in 2016, it launched six. The organization is targeting 12 to 18 launches a year by 2020 to put ever more satellites around Earth for imaging and communication purposes.
And so it seems that India’s space program, which was formed in 1969, is suddenly heating up. Why?
If you pay attention to international politics, you might suspect one reason is the recent rise in Indian nationalism. Modi, who has been in office since 2014, campaigned on a platform similar to U.S. President Donald Trump’s, claiming that India’s previous leaders had failed the nation and that he was the only one who could fix it. He makes policy decisions suddenly and drastically, all the while stoking Hindu nationalist sentiments.
But attributing recent ISRO successes to new nationalism doesn’t ring true to Jaganath Sankaran at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. Yes, Sankaran agrees that “people are looking for things to celebrate and satellites are a proxy for national pride.” But, he adds, space has always been important to India. In 1947, after 200 years of imperialism, the nation was eager to become self-sufficient and develop its own technologies, Sankaran says, including satellites and rocketry. ISRO’s current status and list of accomplishments has been decades in the making—it’s not something that arose within the past few years.
In the early days, the goals of ISRO were significantly different from those of the United States and the Soviet Union, which were focused on human space exploration. Instead, India was keen to develop its satellite capabilities for mapping and surveying crops and damage from natural disasters and erosion, for instance. It also used satellite communication to bring telemedicine and telecommunication to remote rural areas.
ISRO’s founder, Vikram Sarabhai, said as much when arguing that a developing nation like India would need space: “We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or other planets or manned space-flight,” he said, “but we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.”
Another reason to be skeptical that new nationalism is behind the rise, says Sankaran, is that the modern space community in India is heavily technocratic. That is, the scientists and engineers tend to call the shots when it comes to program objectives, he says. And unlike NASA, which has some of its big-budget goals set by the U.S. president, ISRO has a more bottom-up approach to larger initiatives. “It’s not the prime minister’s prerogative to say build a space station,” says Sankaran. “If the [space] labs don’t like it, they can say no.”
One possible reason ISRO seems to be on the up and up could come from the growing market for space in general. A 2015 report from the Space Foundation estimated the global space economy to be worth $323 billion. In particular, small, inexpensive satellites, like the ones ISRO launched in February, are becoming more popular. Silicon Valley startups like Planet, Vector Space, Spire Global, Capella Space, and others are trying out new technologies and applications. Their systems of choice are small cuboid satellites that are loaded with electronics, imaging and guidance systems, and even their own thrusters for applications that often involve imaging and mapping. What’s more, other companies, including Facebook, are paying tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and launch larger satellites to supply internet access to remote regions throughout the world.
Globally, there are a number of rocket options for sending commercial satellites into space. ISRO, for its part, offers a relative bargain. One reason it’s cheaper to launch with ISRO than many others is that Indian labor, from the scientists and engineers to technicians and support staff, is less expensive than in the U.S. and Europe, says Sankaran.
And when it comes to more complex planetary missions, ISRO also saves money with its organizational efficiency, according to Susmita Mohanty, co-founder and board member of Earth2Orbit, a company that advises international clients on launching with ISRO in addition to offering data analytics for satellite data. “After the budget for the Mars mission was approved, the team at ISRO put together the spacecraft and launched it in just 14 months,” she wrote in an email interview. “No other space agency in the world can pull off a planetary space mission in such a compressed timeframe.” This is possible because ISRO can, Mohanty says, “collapse [organizational] hierarchies and get the team together to accomplish the task in record time.”
Still, there might be another reason for ISRO’s rise, suggests Sankaran: the explosion of media coverage. Historically, ISRO’s culture has been dictated by scientists who steered clear of the spotlight. It’s taken decades for the media relations side of ISRO to catch up.
Media coverage will likely continue as more ISRO missions are approved by parliament. These days, India even has human space flight on its agenda. The organization has tested experimental designs for a crew capsule twice, Mohanty notes, with one launch and recovery in 2007 and another in 2014. And last year, the space program flew a scaled-down version of a space shuttle used to test the technology for an eventual, full-sized orbital space plane. “These technology demonstrations prove that ISRO is laying the foundation for human mission sin the near future,” she says.
At the same time, ISRO is working on adding a significant boost to its rockets. In order to even get MOM, which was launched on a PSLV, to Mars, the orbiter had to take extra spins around Earth using its own thrusters to boost it ever higher so that it could eventually escape the planet’s gravity.
A forthcoming cryogenic engine could solve the power problem. Days after the launch of the 104 satellites, ISRO completed the last ground test of its new cryogenic engine, which cools fuel to ultra-low temperatures, giving a rocket more bang for the buck. India was interested in cryogenic rocket technology decades ago, and in 1991 signed a contract with Russia to acquire its technology. At the time, the U.S. pressured Russia to back out, leaving ISRO to develop the system on its own.
While the cryogenic engine will no doubt help India’s exploration of the solar system, it will also fuel the nations own satellite programs. (Some of India’s satellites are too heavy for ISRO’s current rockets and are launched abroad.) Current satellite applications range from TV broadcasting, telecommunication, and homeland security to urban planning, real estate, land management, just to name a few, says Mohanty. “Having a fleet of Earth observation, communication and navigation satellites for a subcontinent like India is a necessity,” she says, “not a luxury.”
This article is part of the new space race installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.